Techniques of Characterisation

Characters in drama are characterised using various techniques of characterisation. It is useful to make distinctions between these techniques, since readers or audiences tend to assign various degrees of credibility to different sources of information.

Generally speaking, one can distinguish between characterisations made by the author in the play's secondary text (authorial) or by other characters in the play (figural), and whether these characterisations are made directly (explicitly) or indirectly (implicitly). Another distinction can be made between self-characterisation and characterisation through others (see characterisation in narrative prose). The way these different forms of characterisation can be accomplished in plays can be schematised as follows:

descriptions of characters in author commentary or stage directions; telling names
characters’ descriptions of and comments on other characters; also self-characterisation
correspondences and contrasts; indirectly characterising names
physical appearance, gesture and facial expressions (body language); masks and costumes; stage props, setting; behaviour; voice; language (style, register, dialect, etc.); topics one discusses

Of course, the characterisation of figures usually works on several levels and combines a number of these techniques.

An example of an explicit authorial characterisation can be found in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger where the author provides a detailed description of Jimmy in the introductory secondary text:

JIMMY is a tall, thin young man about twenty-five, wearing a very worn tweed jacket and flannels. Clouds of smoke fill the room from the pipe he is smoking. He is a disconcerting mixture of sincerity and cheerful malice, of tenderness and freebooting cruelty; restless, importunate, full of pride, a combination which alienates the sensitive and insensitive alike. Blistering honesty, or apparent honesty, like his, makes few friends. To many he may seem sensitive to the point of vulgarity. To others, he is simply a loud-mouth. To be as vehement as he is is to be almost non-committal.
(Osborne, Look Back in Anger, I)

Since this explicit authorial characterisation is obviously not available for viewers in a theatre, Jimmy has to be characterised implicitly through the audio-visual channel, i.e., in his interactions with the other characters, the things he talks about, the way he talks, etc. One means of indirect characterisation is already provided in Jimmy’s physical appearance. The fact that he contrasts sharply with Cliff (tall and slender versus short and big boned) suggests to the audience that he might be different in terms of personality as well. The two men’s divergent characters are most visible in the way they interact, however, and in their respective behaviour towards Jimmy’s wife, Alison:

JIMMY Why do I do this every Sunday? Even the book reviews seem to be the same as last week’s. Different books – same reviews. Have you finished that one yet?
CLIFF Not yet.
JIMMY: I’ve just read three whole columns on the English Novel. Half of it’s in French. Do the Sunday papers make you feel ignorant?
CLIFF Not ‘arf.
JIMMY Well, you are ignorant. You’re just a peasant. (To Alison.) What about you? You’re not a peasant are you?
ALISON (absently.) What’s that?
JIMMY I said do the papers make you feel you’re not so brilliant after all?
ALISON Oh – I haven’t read them yet.
JIMMY I didn’t ask you that. I said –
CLIFF Leave the poor girlie alone. She’s busy.
JIMMY Well, she can talk, can’t she? You can talk, can’t you? You can express an opinion. Or does the White Woman’s Burden make it impossible to think?
ALISON I’m sorry. I wasn’t listening properly.
JIMMY You bet you weren’t listening. Old Porter talks, and everyone turns over and goes to sleep. And Mrs. Porter gets ‘em all going with the first yawn.
CLIFF Leave her alone I said.
JIMMY (shouting). All right, dear. Go back to sleep. It was only me talking. You know? Talking? Remember? I’m sorry.
CLIFF Stop yelling. I’m trying to read.
JIMMY Why do you bother? You can’t understand a word of it.
CLIFF Uh huh.
JIMMY You’re too ignorant.
CLIFF Yes, and uneducated. Now shut up, will you? (ibid.)

In this introductory scene the audience already forms an impression of Jimmy as an almost unbearable, angry, young man because he insults his friend and tries to provoke his wife by making derogatory comments about her parents. The fact that he even starts shouting at Alison shows his ill-temper and that he generally seems to be badly-behaved. By contrast, Cliff tries to ignore Jimmy’s attacks as far as possible in order to avoid further conflicts, and he protects Alison. While Jimmy criticises and humiliates his wife, Cliff shows through his words and gestures that he cares for her. Thus, he asks her to stop ironing and to relax from her household chores:

CLIFF […] (Puts out his hand to Alison.) How are you, dullin’?
ALISON All right thank you, dear.
CLIFF (grasping her hand). Why don’t you leave all that, and sit down for a bit? You look tired.
ALISON (smiling). I haven’t much more to do.
CLIFF (kisses her hand, and puts her fingers in his mouth). She’s a beautiful girl, isn’t she? (ibid.)

His gestures and body language show Cliff as an openly affectionate character. This character trait, which is conveyed in an implicit figural technique of characterisation here, again contrasts with Jimmy’s behaviour and thus brings Jimmy’s lack of loving kindness into sharper relief.

The outward appearance of characters is often used as an implicit means of characterisation. Melodramatic plays, for example, generally present the ‘goodies’ as fair and good-looking, while ‘baddies’ are of dark complexion, wearing moustaches, etc.

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, this device is also used for the characterisation of Caliban. Caliban is an extremely ugly creature, which already signifies the evil traits in his character. Furthermore, Caliban’s language reveals him as ambiguous. While he speaks verse and is generally a capable rhetorician, his speech is also marked by frequent swearing, insults, vulgar and ungrammatical expressions. Thus he says to Prospero: “All the charms / Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!” (The Tempest, I, 2: 398f) and later: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t/ Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you/ For learning me your language!” (ibid: 424-426). Caliban’s evil character traits are also implicitly revealed to the audience when Prospero relates how Caliban tried to rape his daughter, Miranda, and when Caliban tries to inveigle Stephano and Trinculo into usurping the island. This example shows that dramatic figures can be characterised in a number of ways and that the audience is usually given several signals or cues concerning the personality of characters: gesture, behaviour, looks, etc.

Dramatic language is another important means of indirect characterisation in plays. Characters are presented to the audience through what they say and how they say it, their verbal interactions with others and the discrepancies between their talk and their actions. In an actual performance, an actor’s voice and tone thus also play a major role for how the audience perceives the played character. This can also be seen in plays where dialect or specific sociolects are used. Dialect indicates what region or geographical area one comes from, while sociolect refers to linguistic features which give away one’s social status and membership in a social group. An example is Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock where the characters speak with a broad Irish accent and use a lot of local colloquialisms (even the title already employs accent: ‘paycock’ instead of ‘peacock’). Their language immediately categorises the characters as members of a lower social class and it also underlines one of the major themes of the play: patriotism.

Sometimes, character traits can already be anticipated by a character’s name. So-called telling names, for example, explicitly state the quality of a character (e.g., figures like Vice, Good-Deeds, Everyman, Knowledge, Beauty, etc. in the Medieval morality plays), or they refer to characters’ typical behaviour. Thus, some of the characters in Congreve’s The Way of the World are identified as specific types through their names: Fainall = ‘feigns all’, Mirabell = ‘admirable’ and also ‘admirer of female beauty’, Witwoud = ‘would be witty’, and Millamant = ‘has a thousand lovers’.


telling names
morality plays