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Portrayal Of Character

The Three Modes of Characterization--Dialogue--Action--
Description or Direct Statement--Aims of Characterization--
To Show the Nature--To Show the Man as a Physical Being--
Character and Plot--Characterization by Speech--
Characterization by Statement--Characterization by Action.

Characterization is an unlovely term, but it stands for much. In fact,
it stands for so much that it is the hardest point of technique to
discuss adequately. In the fiction writer's vocabulary, it stands for
things as diverse as the necessity that the whole action of a story be
significant in relation to character, and the necessity that the persons
of the fiction seem real and individual, apart from any unique quality
of their actions. Whether the action of a story is significant in
relation to character depends upon whether the writer has discovered a
real plot and developed it properly; whether the persons of a story seem
tangible and unique apart from their actions depends upon the writer's
skill in describing them and transcribing their speech. That is to say,
characterization is a matter accomplished by narration, by description,
and by the transcription of speech. A reader of a story has a clue to
the natures of its people in their actions, in their words, and in what
the writer has to say about them.

It may be well to enlarge somewhat on the respective functions of the
three modes of characterization. Dialogue, action, and description or
direct statement by the author all serve to give the character concerned
individuality in the eyes of a reader, but all do not function in
precisely the same manner or to precisely the same end. A few
illustrations will make this clearer.

Suppose a story involving a character whose most salient trait is
cruelty. The author may demonstrate this quality in the person by
stating directly that he is cruel, by showing him in wantonly heartless
actions, and by placing on his lips words which only a cruel man would
utter. So far, so good. Each sort of demonstration will add something to
a reader's realization of the character. But more is necessary. Cruelty
is not a particularly unique trait; moreover, if a trait is unique,
merely investing a character with it will not serve to give him the
solidity and liveliness of a real person. Whether cruelty or any other
trait is brought out, if it alone is brought out, the person will be a
disembodied moral attribute rather than a man or woman. To secure a
maximum effect upon a reader, the writer must manage to show some
particular cruel person rather than a cruel person. And he must resort
to the same means employed to show the strict character-trait,
description or direct statement, dialogue, and action. But the writer's
aim will be different. He will be concerned with the person's appearance
and effect upon an observer or listener rather than with his nature. As
Stevenson did for Villon in "A Lodging for the Night," the writer of a
story involving a cruel person may call him a "rag of a man, dark,
little, and lean, with hollow cheeks and thin black locks," or may
employ any other combination of words that will give a definite picture
of the man, viewed merely as a physical object, whether he be thin or
fat, ruddy or pale, tall or short. And, in setting down a cruel
person's speeches, the writer not only may make them cruel in content,
but also may make them unique and individual by some mannerism of

What I am trying to show is the fact that characterization, as the term
is commonly employed, includes description as well as the strict
portrayal of character. I have taken up the matter of the description of
persons under that head, and I shall take up, in this chapter, the
matter of speech as both illustrating character and individualizing the
person. The whole difficulty of discussing technique lies in the
necessity to treat in isolation matters which are influential in
numerous directions in a story. In the latter part of this book I am
following the conventional mode of discussing separately the matters of
description of persons, dialogue, and the portrayal of character, but
only after much pondering whether such treatment is advisable. The
advantage is clearness; the disadvantage is loss of relation between
matters mutually influential. For instance, writing dialogue is
descriptive writing in a very real sense. A reader of a story stands in
the position of an observer of certain persons. Their mannerisms of
speech, which come to him through the ear, serve to build up his total
impression of them as much as their physical appearance, which comes to
him through the eye.

The process of characterization, then, however accomplished, is the
result of two very different aims on the part of the writer of a story.
The first aim is to show the essential natures of the people of the
fiction, and may be attained by illustration in action, by direct
statement, and by transcribing their speech. The second aim is to make
them appear real men and women, apart from their natures, and may be
attained by description--which is direct statement--by transcribing
their speech, and even by action. In all three matters of narration,
description, and dialogue the double process may go on. Narrating a
character's victorious fight with a bigger man will leave on a reader a
twin impression of the person's strength--a physical attribute--and
courage--an attribute more strictly of character. When Stevenson,
describing Villon, states that the wolf and pig struggled in his face, a
reader is made to see the cruel sensuality of the man's face as a
physical object, and to feel the cruel sensuality of his nature as a
spiritual fact. If an avaricious character is made to make a miserly
speech, a reader will have a clue to his nature; if he is made to make
it with a lisp or stutter, there will be a descriptive touch as well.
Characterization may be accomplished by narration, by description, and
by dialogue, and characterization, as the term is commonly used,
includes the description of persons as physical objects as well as the
strict portrayal of character.

The writer of fiction who seeks to acquire the technique of
characterization should note two facts. The sort of characterization
which consists in displaying the essential spiritual natures of the
people of a story is largely a matter of plot, of the sequence and
character of each person's actions. If the writer states that John is
miserly, and puts miserly words on his lips, the reader will never
believe in John's avarice if he does a generous thing in the story.
Actions speak louder than words. A reader will believe in John's avarice
from the writer's mere statement and John's words, if John's actions are
not significant adversely to the trait. In other words, personality and
event must have true relation, on account of the inherent nature of a
plot, a matter previously discussed. The second fact for the writer of
fiction to note is that the sort of characterization which consists in
giving the people of a story the vivacity and concreteness of real men
and women is superficial but extremely important. A story is concerned
with the spiritual natures of its people; it shows their growth or
decay; the process is the story itself, particularly in the case of the
story of character. But a story does not deal with disembodied moral
attributes. It deals with men and women, and, if it is to be effective,
a reader must receive some definite physical impression of each person
as well as a knowledge of his nature. In the whole philosophy of fiction
writing, characterization, as commonly understood, functions thus: the
natures of the several major characters are primary elements of the
fiction, as are the events; the impression an observer and listener
would receive from each person must be built up for a reader that the
fiction may have the concreteness and reality of life for him.

Speech, direct statement, and action, the several means whereby
characterization in its two aspects may be accomplished, now may be


As indicated, characterization is a double process. The writer endeavors
to reveal the natures of his people and to individualize them in a more
superficial but equally important sense. Their speech may be made to
reveal their spiritual natures, and it may be made to individualize

The process of making speech reveal character strictly is not difficult
in itself, though it may be difficult to do so unobtrusively. A
sentimental man will reveal his sentimentality when he says sentimental
things, just as a hypocrite will reveal his hypocrisy in hypocritical
words. Cruel words will reveal cruelty in the person who utters them,
and generous words will indicate that their speaker is generous. So far
as possible, the speech of any character should have relation to that
phase of his character which is significant in the story. The cruel man
may be avaricious also, but, if his cruelty and not his avarice is the
trait which has influence upon the events of the story, his words should
reveal his cruelty rather than his avarice. The content of his speeches
should indicate his possession of that trait of his character which is
influential as to the events of the story.[M]

The difficulty will be to find a natural place for these indicative
speeches. The primary necessity in fiction writing is to be unforced and
natural, and a character cannot be made to say words indicative of his
inner nature unless he would naturally utter them under the influence of
the circumstances of the moment. Here, again, the way to write is to get
into the skin of the person involved, to live the story vicariously in
his person, and, when events would naturally call from him words
revealing his pertinent trait, to transcribe them. Primarily, a story is
a story, and its writer must meet all its necessities within its

Lack of space forbids giving examples of the revelation of character by
speech. Dickens will prove a profitable study in this connection. The
words of Pecksniff, for instance, reveal as much of the soul of
Pecksniff as we need to know. All good stories, in greater or lesser
degree, display the method in use.

The second use of his characters' words to the writer of fiction is to
individualize them. It is not a matter of content, but one of manner.
Irrespective of what the person says, the way he says it, if unique,
will serve to increase the definition of a reader's conception of him.
If a character is made to stutter, he will gain in actuality and
concreteness for a reader. The instance is coarse, but will serve to
indicate what is meant. Dickens is unrivalled in his capacity to employ
this device, although the writer of a short story or relatively compact
novel will meet difficulties in following Dickens' technique of
characterization. The "demmit" of Mantalini, the "dispoged" of Sairey
Gamp, the greasiness of Chadband's words, the rounded periods of the
immortal Micawber give a reader the greater part of his idea of each

This sort of characterization may well be called description. The aim is
not to reveal the person's inner nature--though the content of a
mannered speech may do that, of course--but to add to the definition and
reality of any attempted picture of the person by calling in the sense
of hearing. Unlike the effect of descriptive words on a reader, the
effect of written speech is nearly primary, though it lacks something of
the freshness and impressiveness of the spoken word. Writing descriptive
of a character and his mannered words function together to individualize
the person for a reader. The people of a story must be made to appear to
be real men and women, if the fiction is to have its necessary
verisimilitude and consequent effect, and mannered speech will do much
to invest the speakers with reality.

The process must not be carried beyond the bounds of naturalness. A
mannerism of speech may be too pronounced, in that it tends to arrest a
reader's attention and distract it from the flow of the story.
Unnecessarily distorted spelling, for instance, employed in an attempt
to be too strictly phonetic, will call attention to itself rather than
individualize the speaker, that is, it will destroy the illusion of the
story. "Yuh" for "you" is an instance. We all "yuh" more or less, I
think, and for the writer of a story to insist thus pedantically on
strict phonetic accuracy tends to make the whole fiction labored and
unnatural. The whole trick is to suggest any particular distortion, and
yet to have the words as intelligible for a reader as if the spelling
were normal.

Mispronunciation, of course, is not the only mannerism of speech that
may be availed of. In fact, the tendency is to abuse it. An open ear
toward the casual talk he hears will give the writer many useful hints,
and so will reading the work of others.

The speech of class and class varies, as does the speech of man and man.
A lawyer in a story should be distinguishable from a sailor by the very
content of his vocabulary. So should a doctor from an engineer or a
brakeman, or a musician from an artist. But it must all be done
naturally. The writer cannot drag in by the ears technical terms of any
profession solely that a reader may be informed indirectly of the
speaker's profession. But a doctor or lawyer, for instance, will
generally be in a story because it requires the presence of a lawyer or
doctor, and therefore the story will offer opportunity for him to reveal
his place in society by his speech. Incidentally it may be noted that
this matter emphasizes the necessity that the writer of fiction be
observant in life and omnivorous in reading. He should know the manner
of speech of any considerable class of men. It is true, of course, that
no two lawyers talk precisely alike, but it is also true that it is
possible to suggest a lawyer speaking by a proper choice of words, and
that is the thing to do, naturally and unobtrusively. If the speech of a
character is individualized in some manner, and if, in addition, a
reader can gather his business or profession from his words, he will
gain much in reality and definition.

The content of the talk of the characters of a story, then, should
reveal their inner natures, and their idiosyncrasies of utterance and
word-choice should be devised and set down to intensify the impression
of their individuality initiated by the writer's strictly descriptive
touches. Characterization is a double process, and neither aspect of it
should be neglected, whether the writer is narrating, describing, or
transcribing speech.


So far as characterization by direct statement is a matter of
individualizing the persons of a story as mere physical objects, apart
from their inner natures, it has been discussed in stating the technique
of the description of persons. It was there stated that the writer's
endeavor should be to catch and fix in words the most salient attribute
of the character. And usually it will be the case that a person's most
striking physical attribute will have relation to some fact of his
spirit, as in Stevenson's description Villon's sensual face hints of his
sensual soul. The fact serves to make more obvious the truth that
characterization is a double process of individualizing superficially
and of revealing the person's nature, and Stevenson's description of the
medieval French poet is an instance of how the writer of fiction may
attain both ends in a single phrase, and avoid the suggestion of
artificiality in directly stating that a character is good or bad or
brave or cowardly, as the case may be. Instead of stating that Villon
was sensual and cruel, Stevenson states that the wolf and pig struggled
in his face. A reader sees the man's face and comprehends his nature,
and comprehends the spiritual fact the more thoroughly because reaching
it inferentially from a mere picture. The point is worth noting.

However, the writer of fiction frequently must state his characters'
moral attributes directly. Not all conceivable persons wear their souls
in their faces; if some ruddy, bluff old gentleman is a villain at
heart, the writer can only say so, unless he is willing to depend wholly
on the revelation of spirit worked by the character's deeds. And
sometimes such a revelation comes too near the end for the other
purposes of the story. Much of the interest or suspense of a tale may
depend upon the reader having knowledge of the natures of the people who
struggle with one another singly or in groups. Or direct statement as to
a character's nature may be necessary to emphasize the significance of
his acts. Stevenson's "The Ebb Tide" is an example. The book is
concerned with the unavailing struggle of a weak man to be other than
weak, and the author prefaces the course of events with a thumbnail
biography of the weakling that invests the progress of the story with
something of the inevitability of fate. The method is a favorite one of
Stevenson's, and is employed in most of his longer work. Each brief
sketch is directed to bring out the character's trait or traits of
significance in the story, and the whole fiction gains point thereby.
Turgenieff composed a biography of each of his characters to deepen and
clarify his own realization of them, and incorporation in a story of a
swift and significant sketch of a character's previous life likewise may
serve to deepen and clarify a reader's realization of the person.

Stating directly that any person is good or bad or brave or avaricious
may give a reader a key to his acts, lending them point, but direct
statement is the most infirm mode of characterization. Any mere
statement is less impressive and less compelling than a demonstration.
And direct statement of a character's nature must be reinforced and
proved by his words and deeds. It is difficult enough at best to invest
a fictitious person with reality, and the writer can afford to neglect
no device.

As in fulfilling all other necessities of his story, in characterizing
by direct statement the writer must be easy and natural. The requirement
is somewhat indefinite, as stated, but real. Statement should not be too
bald; a little subtlety will be profitable to employ. To state that a
character is bad, simply, is too childlike, unless the story is told
from the viewpoint of a child. The matter of viewpoint must always be
considered in characterizing by direct statement, for obvious reasons.
If the writer takes the position of an impersonal observer, to whom the
souls of all characters are open, he can write pretty much as he wills.
If he writes from the viewpoint of a single character, whether in the
first or third person, he cannot assume too inclusive knowledge of the
souls of the others. The matter has been discussed elsewhere.[N]


The value of action as a means to give a reader realization of the
physical appearance of a character is somewhat slight. To show the
person as performing a feat of strength will suggest that he is a
powerful man, but physical prowess is not a visually definite quality.
Powerful men are not always even large men. Action is greatly useful to
reveal the soul, but not very useful to reveal appearance.

However, between narrative and strict descriptive writing a borderland
exists. A person may be described as having a sneaking look. That is
strict description. But the writer also may relate how the person slunk
down an alley to avoid meeting someone he dared not face. The
descriptive value of the word "slunk" as to the person will be as great
as the narrative value of the word to the event. It is merely the matter
of vivid and effective narration approached from a new angle. Narration
consists in stating what happened to certain persons and what they did,
and a descriptive quality, both as to the persons and the events, should
permeate it. Visualization of the story in imagination will show the

If action is the least effective way to hint of the characters'
appearance, it is by far the most effective way to display their
natures. The whole purpose of the story of character is to display the
fact and demonstrate the consequences of the possession of certain
traits by a group of persons or even by one person. And in any real
story, that is, in any fiction built about a plot, the traits of a
character and the events will be mutually influential. Either the
characters will be devised to develop the events, or the events will be
devised to develop the characters. The moral quality of an act is a sure
index to the moral quality of the person who commits it. A story must
reveal character simply because it consists of a series of events
involving and produced by men and women. The writer's endeavor is not
merely to narrate the events for their own sake, but also to realize
just what sort of people must inevitably have acted so under the given
conditions, and to employ his subsidiary means of characterization so as
to bring out no trait unnecessary to the events.

There is one exception to the rule that the writer should endeavor to
bring out only the traits of character strictly material to the events.
Of course, the primary necessity in fiction writing is to develop the
whole story naturally. But a story is for its readers. To give some
stories full effect upon a reader it is necessary to invest one or more
of the characters with a trait or traits not strictly necessary to the
development of the story. Usually the aim will be to awaken the reader's
sympathy that he may follow the fortunes of the person or persons with
greater interest than the bare content of the story would evoke. For
instance, if a story shows a character whose unlovely traits lead him
into difficulties, investing him also with some pleasing attribute will
deepen a reader's interest in his fate by arousing active pity for him.
I have touched upon this matter before and from another angle in
discussing the necessity that the writer select a mode of narration
which will permit him to express his sympathy for a character that he
may evoke a reader's. Stevenson's treatment of Herrick in "The Ebb-Tide"
was instanced, and one who has read the book will recall that its author
gave Herrick attributes of mind and soul more pleasing than inefficiency
and weakness, though weakness was the single quality demanded in Herrick
to render inevitable the course of events.[O]

No specific technique of characterization by action can be stated; it is
a matter of conceiving and elaborating the whole story justly. The fact
for the writer is that a person's acts reveal his inner nature, and the
necessity that the writer must meet is to devise events and characters
having a natural and plausible relation. If this is done, the essential
substance of the story will be sound, at least, so far as character is
concerned. Then the writer must meet the other necessity to make his
people appear to be real men and women apart from any distinction of
their inner natures. If both necessities are met, a reader will be faced
by real people doing things for real and adequate reasons, which is a
great part of the art of fiction.

All the acts of a person's life, great and small, would reveal his whole
nature. But a story usually does not take a person from birth to death,
and, if it does, it is concerned with a phase of the life rather than
with the whole life. The art of fiction is highly selective, and
necessarily so. Not only must the writer of fiction produce his effects
within a limited space, but he must consciously eliminate here and
suppress there in order to make apparent the real significance of his
picture of life. The significance of one man's life may lie in his
constant loyalty to and sacrifice for his family; the significance of
another's in his complete disregard of his obligations as a husband and
father. In either case, the writer who sees material for a short story
or novel in such a life must select for reproduction chiefly those acts
of the character which are significant as to the trait sought to be
brought out, otherwise the story will be without point and meaning.
Viewed superficially, a story is a mere string of events that happened
to happen, a thing easy to write without forethought and calculation.
But the truth is that a story is a chain of events at least influenced
and sometimes even determined by character. If the influence of
character in the fiction is predominant, it cannot be written justly
without careful weighing and selection of the incidents that suggest
themselves to the writer.

Having conceived a plot and devised characters to enact it, or having
conceived characters and devised a plot to develop them, the writer
should outline the main course of the story, mentally or on paper. He
then should realize definitely and precisely what traits of character
are primarily significant in the story, and should prepare to develop
them so as to reinforce the effect of his people's acts upon a reader by
characteristic dialogue and description and direct statement. The writer
should consider next whether a due regard for a reader's interest
requires that he invest his people with attributes not strictly
necessary to the main events of the story, and therefore not to be
revealed by each person's part in such events. Finally, the writer
should realize that he must give each person a definite physical
presence and illusion of actuality, and should prepare to do so by
visualizing them in imagination. If all this is done at all, it is
certain that the story will be a better piece of work than if the writer
set to work with only a vague prevision of the course of events as his
material. And if it is done justly, and the writer has adequate
executive powers, the story will be worth while, at least in relation to


[M] A great deal of close argument might be developed here. A plot is a
chain of events influencing and influenced by character, and by
character is meant not persons but traits. In some story, let us say,
the avarice of one man brings him into conflict with another, also
impelled by avarice. The conflict, of course, is not between two
disembodied attributes, but between two persons, and the writer of such
a story must individualize them. He should endeavor to give a reader an
idea of how they look, by describing them, and of how they talk, by
individualizing their speech. But he need not emphasize nor even bring
out any phase of their spiritual natures not material to the story. That
is to say, the writer of a story, in order to give it the seeming of
life, should make every effort and employ all means to invest each
character with a definite physical presence or illusion of actuality,
but he should not try to displace the inner nature of each person in
like detail.

[N] It will be instructive to realize why direct statement of a
character's outstanding moral quality is less effective than skillful
description of his person, though both the statement and the description
are fundamentally descriptive writing. One may say that a moral
attribute cannot be described, can merely be stated, but that is a
statement of the condition rather than of the cause. The root of the
matter is that the appearance of a person is the resultant of a
combination of details; by stating the significant details in proper
relation the writer can force a reader to perceive for himself the
totality of the person's appearance. But a quality of soul is unified
and undetailed. It is ineffective to say that a person is cruel simply
for the same reason that it is ineffective to say that he is handsome.
It follows that any breaking up of a quality of soul into its elements,
if possible, will increase the effectiveness of the statement. Thus,
cruelty may result from essential virility of soul in combination with
insensitiveness, and so forth.

[O] To accomplish this subordinate and strictly unnecessary
characterization the writer must employ the same three means of speech,
direct statement, and action. But the action will constitute only a
secondary event or events in the story, and must not bulk too large at
the expense of the primary events.

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