- a literary device used to describe qualities of and relating to a person or thing
Characterization comes in many forms, and does not exclusively have to relate to a person. Writers have been know to characterize anything from inanimate objects to entire cities, in addition to their principal cast. But how do they do it? How do writers learn how to characterize? As with any other profession, we learn by practice and example. As such, here are several examples of great characterization in literature.
Train to Pakistan by Kushwant Singh
From the Goodreads summary:
[Mano Majra] is a place … where Sikhs and Muslims have lived together in peace for hundreds of years. Then one day, at the end of the summer, the “ghost train” arrives, a silent, incredible funeral train loaded with the bodies of thousands of refugees, bringing the village its first taste of the horrors of the civil war. Train to Pakistan is the story of this isolated village that is plunged into the abyss of religious hate. It is also the story of a Sikh boy and a Muslim girl whose love endured and transcends the ravages of war.
Singh takes great care characterizing each of the principal cast members – Iqbal Singh, Juggut Singh, and Hukum Chand – in order to explore the moral paradoxes of the human issues surrounding partition. Perhaps most importantly, Singh is able to characterize Mano Majra itself, creating a village that feels as though it is a living character. Many have argued that Mano Majra, more than any other character, is in fact the protagonist of the story. This trick of storytelling and characterization is amazing to watch unfold, and provides a compelling example of unique ways to utilize characterization in literature.
July’s People by Nadine Gordimer
From the Goodreads summary:
For years, it had been what is called a “deteriorating situation.” Now all over South Africa the cities are battlegrounds. The members of the Smales family—liberal whites—are rescued from the terror by their servant, July, who leads them to refuge in his village. What happens to the Smaleses and to July—the shifts in character and relationships—gives us an unforgettable look into the terrifying, tacit understandings and misunderstandings between blacks and whites.
Gordimer does a beautiful job shifting the characterization of her characters as perspectives shift. As in, as the Smales realize their inability to shed privilege, as they realize that the ‘dignified’ way they treated their servant was actually humiliating, July transforms from a servant to a fully realized human being. It is a very natural shift and a master class in characterization.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
From the back of the book:
Sethe. Proud and beautiful, she escaped from slavery but is haunted by its heritage – from the fires of the flesh to the heartbreaking challenges to the spirit. Set in rural Ohio several years after the civil war, this profoundly affecting chronicle of slavery and its aftermath is Toni Morrison’s greatest novel[.]
I talk a little bit more about Beloved here. In terms of characterization, Morrison masterfully created deeply complex characters that readers can’t help but sympathize with because of and despite their many flaws. The raw pain expressed by these characters is weaved throughout every aspect of their character, layering these people so that they seem less like characters in a story and more like real people in a dark biography. As with Train to Pakistan and July’s People, your writing will thank you for reading this book.
What’s your favorite example of characterization? Let me know in the comments below!