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Understanding Concepts of Character and Characterization

Understanding Concepts of Character and Characterization

Any piece of literary work has always got plot, subject matter, style and character. Character forms the most important component of a piece of writing, especially fiction and non-fiction. Just imagine a novel going on and on without a character and can you imagine a drama happening without a character. That is where the importance of characters lies. Various research papers have been done on the concept of character and characterization clearly. 

Characterization is not at all an easy concept to deal with and therefore, ameture writers may require guidance while doing a character sketch of any character in the piece of writing. 

A character can be described as a short and witty sketch of a particular person in a work of prose. Its origins can be traced back to the Greeks when this genre was first inaugurated by Theophrastus who was a Greek author writing in the 2nd century, famous for his book Characters. Slowly and gradually, the concept saw in-depth refinement and importance especially in the 17th century and thereafter. Sir Thomas Overbury was the one who used characters to give titles to his book for example, A Wise Man, A Courtier, A Fair and Happy Milkmaid and the like. 

Just as in real life, characters are used to define or represent people in a narrative or dramatic work wherein these people possess emotional, intellectual and moral qualities that are inferred from the thought process, speech patterns, actions and behaviors of these people. These qualities are necessary to be understood for the process of characterization.

The reason behind the different behaviors of the characters are their desires that motivate them to do the actions that are actually done by them. There may be characters, in a piece of work, who do not change a bit from starting to end as happens with Prospero in Tempest by Shakespeare or these characters may undergo a series of changes to a gradual process as the title character in Jane Austen’s Emma.

Developments in characters can also be seen as a result of crises as happens with Pip in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Irrespective of whatever changes the character is seeing throughout the course of events in novel or drama, it cannot be expected of him to completely break away from his temperament as seen in the beginning of the piece of work.

In Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster talks about two types of characters – flat and round. Forster says that a flat character is like a two-dimensional figure, simple to understand and can be described in a single phrase or sentence without much detailing. Round characters, on the other hand, Forster says are complex in temperament and are represented keeping in mind particular details. 

Ben Jonson’s Sir Epicure Mammon can be said to be a flat character whereas Shakespeare’s Falstaffcan be said to be a round one. The degree of elaboration and importance to a particular character depends upon the function of the character in the plot. In fact, in many types of narratives like detective stories or adventure novels, even the protagonist is two-dimensional. 

The process of characterizing can also be different with respect to different characters and their importance in the narrative. This process involves two distinctive methods used alternatively – showing and telling. In the former method, the author simply presents his characters to the readers, showing them talking and acting, leaving it entirely up to the readers to figure out for themselves the motive and the inner self of these characters.

Identification needs to be done keeping in mind the actions, the speech and the ideas of these characters. In this method of showing, the author may not only show the outer actions of the character but also portray his thought processes, feelings and responsiveness to events using a technique which has been refined and prominently known as the inner monologue or the stream of consciousness technique.

This technique saw a huge rise in the modern era of English Literature where writers like Virginia Woolf (in Mrs. Dalloway), Joseph Conrad (in Lord Jim) and James Joyce (in A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man) have extensively employed the technique. They have used it to show the development of plot, and the thought process of one character has been used to define the other characters as well. 

The method of telling, the author himself tells the readers about the motives and disposition of the character he is talking about so as to reveal everything to the readers. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a perfect example of writing in this way wherein the writer clearly describes the motives of the two characters Mr. and Mrs. Bennet when Mrs. Bennet talks about a man occupying the neighboring place. Mrs. Bennet wants Mr. Bennet to go and talk to the man regarding the fixing of the match of their eldest daughter. Austen too writes a paragraph to describe the character of Mr. Bennet. 

Several research paper writings have said that this technique of telling is a direct violation of artistry and they have widely recommended the technique of showing. This technique gives some food for thought to the readers so that they could themselves give a subjective interpretation of the characters. 

The modern and the postmodern era saw an extensive experimentation on the field of writing and the writers in this era focused on the individuality of the characters rather than trying to fit them in the world of the novel. In fact, the dramatists of the Theatre of the Absurd used characters in order to convey their themes. Even the structuralists and the postcolonial critics focused on the concept of identity of a character and how people were witnessing a loss of identity. 

Thus, the concept of character and characterization is central to any literary work. The information given above is sufficient enough to provide guidance to learners doing character sketches.

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