Preview Quiz 1

As a preview to what will be discussed in Part One, try to answer this question:

What kind of "character" are we talking about in this booklet?

  1. An odd or unusual person
  2. Any person in a story
  3. The good qualities of a person

Begin reading Part One to discover the correct answer.

Characters are persons in short stories, plays, and novels and this booklet will help you understand them. Before you are finished, you will see how people in fiction are made to seem real; how a writer gives his characters "the breath of life" and carefully helps you, the reader, to feel as though you know them.

Have you ever considered how writers create fictional characters? They use certain techniques skillfully to make their characters think and act like real people. Writers give their characters personalities. To do this, they use a variety of methods. To help you recognize these techniques, which will be discussed in Part Two, they are listed here.

Character may be revealed through:

1. the character's appearance.

2. the character's actions.

3. the character's speech,

4. the character's thoughts.

5. the thoughts and comments of other characters.

Do not feel that you must memorize this list. You are not expected to memorize anything in this booklet. Instead, try to acquire a certain "feel" for characters which will make your reading more enjoyable and your comprehension more complete. Understanding the characters in a story helps you to understand the entire story. Carry this feel for character, with you beyond the classroom to your recreational reading.

Since literature often reflects real life, characters on the printed page are often recognizable and may even remind you of people you know. Some people you know casually; their influence is slight. Others you know well; their influence is greater.

The same situation exists in fiction. Some characters only have names and are mentioned in passing. They have little importance in the action or plot of the story, Some characters, like "The Fat Man", do not even have names. His size is his only identification, but he adds color to a story and serves his limited purpose. On the other hand, more important characters, the ones who have much to say, many actions to perform, and important decisions to make, are developed so that their entire personalities come to life.

Even animals, if they are important to the action of the story, may be called characters. If they think and act like people, they are called "human" animals. They often appear in stories and novels where there are no human beings. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is an example of an adult novel in which seagulls represent people. The following excerpt from the book illustrates this point:

"Why, Jon?" his mother asked. "Why is it so hard to be like the rest of the flock, Jon? Why can't you leave low flying to the pelicans, the albatross? Why don't you eat? Son, you're bone and feathers!"

"I don't mind being bone and feathers, Mom. I just want to know what I can do in the air and what I can't, that's all. I just wanted to know."

Preview Quiz 2

As a preview to what will be discussed next, try to answer this question:

Which one of these novels contains an animal character who is simply an animal and does not represent a human?

  1. Moby Dick
  2. Fathers and Sons
  3. Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Continue reading to discover the correct answer.

Animals do not have to represent people to be called characters. Often animals are simply animals, like the famous dog Buck in Jack London's Call of the Wild or the infamous Moby Dick, the white whale, created by Herman Melville. These two animals do not think, act, or speak like people, but they do present problems for the human beings in the novels.

Some writers go one step further with characterization by giving inanimate (nonliving) things personalities. Joseph Conrad, in his novel Typhoon, creates a storm that is more than just part of the setting. He makes the storm seem very much alive as it strikes out against helpless men. Notice, too, that the ship, referred to as "she" seems to be a living being at the mercy of the raging storm.

The seas in the dark seemed to rush from all sides to keep her back where she might perish. There was hate in the way she was handled, and a ferocity in the blows that fell. She was like a living creature thrown to the rage of a mob ..., Captain MacWhirr and Jukes kept hold of each other, deafened by the noise, gagged by the wind ...

"Will she live through this?" Jukes yelled.

Another example of an object possessing living qualities is found in The Pearl, a short novel with an unusual characterization in the form of a pearl. The pearl should mean wealth and happiness to its finder, Kino, but as the story unfolds, it becomes a thing of evil that destroys several people. The following conversation from the novel illustrates this point:

"I was attacked in the dark," said Kino. "And in the fight I have killed a man."

"Who?" asked Juan Tomas quickly.

"I do not know. It is all darkness—all darkness and the shape of darkness."

"It is the pear!," said Juan Tomas.

"There is a devil in this pearl. You should have sold it and passed on the devil."

Thus you can see that characterization can include things as well as animals and people. People, however, are the important characters in fiction.

Now that you know what characterization is, let us examine the ways that writers reveal characters and make them real.