Characterization: presenting the character on paper

Narration sketches the portrait of your character and his development. Dialogue humanizes and personifies the character. Characterization through dialogue gives him fullness, substance and individuality. It needs to be no deeper than necessary to fulfil its function.
Explicit characterization
The author literally tells the audience what a character is like. This may be done via the narrator, another character or by the character themselves.  For example: John had been a trouble maker since the day he was born.
Implicit characterization
The audience must infer for themselves what the character is like through the character’s thoughts, actions, speech (choice of words, manner of speaking), physical appearance, mannerisms and interaction with other characters, including other characters’ reactions to that particular person. For example: As soon as the cashier had her back turned, his eyes slid down to the open cash register.
Ways of characterization in descending levels of Point of View

1. Camera eye (objective, superficial)

For example: John walked down the street.

2. Actions

Looking at body language and facial expressions while listening to what people say, is how we judge people’s character in real life. When we look at how a person interacts with other people (or animals), we decide if that person is a good guy, a bad guy or a combination. Dialogue reveals motives and agendas of the characters. It creates suspense and tension, it prepares us for what’s coming and it sets the mood. The onset of dialogue immediately kicks the story into high gear.

  • A sound (accent): “Ya’ll good?” Southern John said.
    The secret to writing convincing accents is creating only the illusion of one. Don’t write in the full accent, keep it easy to read and understand.
  • Tone of voice: Patrick thundered.
  • Pause in speech: William struggled to get his head through the hole in his jumper.
  • A stutter: Show the stutter at the introduction of the character and confirm it occasionally so show it’s a mannerism, not a situational thing. Don’t stutter through every bit of dialogue, it’s tiresome.

Keep in mind: dialogue should not be interchangeable between characters. Each character has his own voice, his own way of speaking and reacting to things. Keep in mind what the dominant traits of the character are and make the dialogue fit those traits.


By using gestures, you portray the character while developing mood. You also give the reader a break between dialogue passages and help him remember who says which bit. Gestures can also underline the dialogue with emphasis. Lastly, gestures can build conflict and tension.

  • Move: Johnny shuffled aside.
  • Facial expression: Bella grimaced.
  • A look: Mary looked away.
  • Mood: ‘I won’t hurt you,’ Anne said, running her fingernail along his jaw line.
  • Conflict / Tension: He cracked his knuckles.

Keep in mind: gestures must match dialogue and be fitting to the character. Each gesture must have a purpose, it helps carry the story so don’t overdo it (about one gesture per dialogue passage).

Showing their habits

Habits: it is better and more effective to show a particular habit once and imply it’s habitual rather than repeatedly show the same habit until the reader concludes it’s a habit.

Example: “He saw no need to change his morning routine and drank his cup of coffee and skipped breakfast.”

Example: He got up, skipped breakfast and grabbed a cup of coffee. He woke up, drank a cup of coffee and decided to skip breakfast. He sat at the breakfast table drinking a cup of coffee, ignoring the food on the table.

3. Perception

Think of all the sensations that come from within, such as hunger. Filter perceptions through primal needs. Example: if you are hungry, you will see the steak on the dinner table before you see the wine next to the plate.

4. Thoughts

Little mental notes made during dialogue show any disconnect between what one says and what one thinks.

5. Emotions


Show their world view, to let the reader know how pessimistic or optimistic your protagonist is. This also shows how naive or cynical he might be. Self-image is another way to show attitude. There is always a disconnect between how one sees himself and how the world sees him. What he denies about himself is as important as what he declares about himself. Intentions show character as well. A person is always trying to prove, explain or hide something.

6. Voice – deep immersion

Adding little snarky comments, allows readers to feel like they are having a secret conversation with the character.

Eriksson, P. S. (1987) Shut up! He Explained
Haven (1999) Wright Right; Creative Writing Using Storytelling Techniques
Rasley, Al. (2008) The Power of Point of View.