Character and Characterization

Years ago I took a Russian class. Our teacher had taught English ‘back home’ in his native Moscow and found the English language very frustrating.  In Russia, it seems, there is an exact word for everything.  You want to describe the placement of a pen situated 2 inches to the left and one inch in front of a book? Apparently there’s a word to describe precisely that position. (I don’t know for sure – I only took the class for 12 weeks – but I’ll take my teacher’s word for it!)

That vagueness is the problem we run into when discussing Character and Characterization. For many people, the words are interchangeable, but they’re not.

When we talk about a character’s ‘character’ – see what I mean about English being imprecise? – we are talking about the internal make-up of the person.  Think of it in Jane Austen terms: He was a man of good character. Character speaks to us of values, ethics and morals, and all of these are internal.

Consider one of Harry Potter’s conversation with Dumbledore. Because both Harry and Voldemort can speak to snakes, Harry is concerned that he might be swayed to following The Dark Lord.  Dumbledore reassures him by responding – We are our choices.  And that is key.  Even from a very young age, Harry’s choices were very different to Tom Riddle’s.

As Robert McKee writes in his book Story: True Character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.

So what is Characterization? Robert McKee says: Characterization is the sum of all observable qualities of a human being, everything knowable through careful scrutiny 

For me, simply put, character is internal while characterization is the external manifestation of the internal.

For example, if your character’s ‘character’ is petty and mean-spirited, how will that reveal itself externally in your character’s actions? Will he leave a tip for the waiter? If he does, will it be exactly 10%. Will he count the money out in change down to the last penny?

If your character’s ‘character’ is cowardly, will he act to save someone’s life if it means he personally must face personal danger to do so?

Revealing ‘character’ (choices) through characterization (external actions) creates drama and conflict on the page.


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