The people in a narrative are called characters rather than persons to emphasise the fact that they are only representations of people, constructed by an author to fulfil a certain function in a certain context. We form a mental construct of characters from the information we are given but also add some ideas from our own experience and imagination (for a discussion of these processes of mental construction see Schneider 2001). Thus, even though we judge characters in literature according to our experience of ‘real’ people, unlike ‘real’ people they do not exist independently of their narrative context and little or no benefit is to be gained from speculating on the psychological make-up of a character for which we are not given any indication in the text (see Pfister 1988: 221).

The main questions for an analysis of character are:

1) Techniques of characterisation: HOW does the text inform us about       character and
2) Character functions: WHAT FUNCTION do characters have in the       narrative.

Techniques of Characterisation

Techniques of characterisation are used in texts to enable readers to form a mental construct of a character. There are six main aspects to be considered (see Jahn 2002: N7 and further references there): How is the character described, by whom is the character described, how is the characterisation distributed throughout the text, how reliable is the source of information, what do we learn about a character's inner life and in which arrangements of contrasts and correspondences is the character depicted. (Most of he following is based on Pfister 1988).

Explicit and Implicit Characterisation

The most obvious technique of characterisation is when someone (in the following excerpt: the narrator) tells us explicitly what a character is like:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. (Austen, Emma, ch.1)

A character is sometimes also characterised explicitly through a telling name, as for instance Squire Allworthy, who is a worthy gentleman in all respects, in Fielding's Tom Jones. But we also deduce character-traits that are given implicitly through the character’s actions, other character’s attitudes to him or her, etc.

Characterisation by Narrator or Character

Characters can be described, implicitly as well as explicitly, either by the narrator (sometimes, somewhat misleadingly, called authorial characterisation) or by another character in the narrative (also called figural characterisation) or even by the characters themselves (self-characterisation).

The following gives an example for a characterisation by narrator combined with the narrator's representation of other characters' views (see also the section on narrator comment for evaluative language). Explicitly, Mr Snagsby is characterised as a shy, retiring man. It is also implied that his wife is neither shy nor retiring and that he is rather tyrannised by Mrs Snagsby:

Mr and Mrs Snagyby are not only one bone and one flesh but, to the neighbours' thinking, one voice too. That voice, appearing to proceed from Mrs Snagsby alone, is heard in Cook's Court very often. Mr Snagsby, otherwise than as he finds expression through these dulcet tones, is rarely heard. He is a mild, bald, timid man, with a shining head, and a scrubby clump of black hair sticking out at the back. He tends to meekness and obesity. [...] He is emphatically a retiring and unassuming man. (Dickens, Bleak House, ch. 10).

A further example: Miss Clack, the poor, religious cousin in The Moonstone introduces herself (self-characterisation) to the reader in the following terms:

I am indebted to my dear parents (both now in heaven) for having had habits of order and regularity instilled into me at a very early age. In that happy bygone time, I was taught to keep my hair tidy at all hours of the day and night, and to fold up every article of my clothing carefully, in the same order, on the same chair, in the same place at the foot of the bed, before retiring to rest. An entry of the day's events in my little diary invariably preceeded the folding up. The 'Evening Hymn' (repeated in bed) invariably followed the folding up. And the sweet sleep of childhood invariably followed the 'Evening Hymn'. (Collins, Moonstone, Second Period, First narrative, ch. 1)

A little further, Miss Clack characterises herself as:

[...] one long accustomed to arouse, convince, prepare, enlighten, and fortify others [...]. (ibid., ch. 8)

With these self-descriptions Miss Clack characterises herself explicitly as a dutiful, orderly and religious person. Implicitly, she is depicted as somewhat obnoxious and one who always knows how other people should reform their lives and is willing to say so. It is thus not surprising when Mr Ablewhite calls Miss Clack "this impudent fanatic" (ibid.).

Block Characterisation

We can be given crucial information all at once about a character in a block characterisation:

Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of fact and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, sir – peremptorily Thomas – Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic. (Dickens, Hard Times, ch. 2)

Again, this characterisation, given by the narrator, imparts information about Thomas Gradgrind both in explicit description and implicitly, reproducing Thomas Gradgrind's mind style (for this term see Nischik 1991), the way he thinks about the world in his own mind (see also Representation of Consciousness). Block characterisations are usually given when a character is first introduced. Alternatively, the reader receives information piecemeal throughout the narrative. This is usually the case for complex and dynamic characters.


One needs to take the reliability of the source of the characterisation into consideration when assessing the information one receives about a character. A characterisation given by a character whose reliability the reader has cause to question, will not be accepted at face value, it becomes unreliable narration. When for instance the fanatically religious and officious Miss Clack (see her self-characterisation above) characterises Rachel, the lively and beautiful heroine of The Moonstone as "insignificant-looking" and with "an absence of all lady-like restraint in her language and manner" (Collins, Moonstone, Second period, first narrative, ch.1), one is inclined to interpret this in Rachel's favour rather than to her disadvantage. As in this case, a character’s explicit characterisation of other characters functions as implicit self-characterisation, since it expresses a character’s attitudes and often reveals a character’s weaknesses. In this case, Miss Clack’s harsh judgment of Rachel and her conduct is no doubt influenced by the difference in looks and social standing between her and Rachel. To make matters worse, Rachel has attracted the amorous attentions of Godfrey Ablewhite, for whom Miss Clack herself harbours an unlimited adoration.

Generally, a reader will treat self-characterisation with care, since a character’s self-proclaimed opinion of him- or herself can be distorted or given for purposes other than honest self-characterisation. When Uriah Heep in Dickens' David Copperfield assures everyone repeatedly that he is so very “humble”, the reader’s distrust is awakened even before Uriah is disclosed as a hypocritical villain.

In contrast to self-characterisations and characterisation by other characters, those character descriptions given by the narrator, unless there are indications to the contrary, are usually assumed to be reliable and the reader tends to believe the narrator’s characterisations more readily than others.

Inner Life of Character

Depending on the sort of information that is given about a character, readers will feel to a larger or smaller degree acquainted with a character. To a large extent this depends on the penetration of inner life (Rimmon-Kenan 1983: 42). The more one knows about a character’s thoughts and emotional responses, the more complex the character will appear and the more ready the reader is to empathise with the character.

Contrasts and Correspondences

Characters are perceived in comparison to other characters. It might be, for instance, that several characters are confronted with the same difficulty to which they react differently or, as the case may be, similarly. Such contrasts and correspondences give the reader additional information about the character. In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings for instance, a number of characters can be assessed according to their reaction to the influence of the ring: While some characters succumb immediately to the ring’s evil power (like Gollum), others imagine they can use the ring’s power to good purpose (like Boromir), yet others are hardly affected by the pressure the ring exerts (like Sam or Bilbo Baggins). Through contrasts and correspondences characters act as foil to each other.


Summary: Characterisation Techniques

by the narrator (authorial)
by the character (figural)
another character
description or comment description or comment (simultaneously implicit self-characterisation) description or comment
report of character's actions and/or thought, description of outward appearance and circumstances, contrasts and correspondences as implied by choice of expression and description of appearance and circumstances use of language or gesture, expression, attitudes unconsciously expressed, characteristic props


techniques of characterisation
explicit / implicit
telling name
by narrator
by character
mind style
inner life of character