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Characterization’s Importance in Literature Essay

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Updated: Jul 3rd, 2020

Characterization is an important part of literature because authors rely on this device to create functional and significant characters. On the other hand, good characterization translates into interesting and excellent stories. Characterization as a literary device is used to support all the other elements of a short story. Consequently, the author will address a character’s behavior and continue by using other literary elements to offer useful insights into this character. After being introduced to a character, the readers are offered a chance to learn more about his/her nature through his/her opinions, ideas, relationships with other characters, and thought process. In the history of literature, attention has always shifted back and forth between “dominance of plot over characters and vice versa” (Burroway and Weinberg 23).

There are two main types of characterizations that are often used by authors when they are constructing characters. The first type of characterization is known as direct-characterization and it mostly involves one character informing the audience about other characters. The narrator style of literature is a good example of direct characterization. The other form of characterization is indirect-characterization where “the audience has to deduce the characteristics of the character by observing his/her thought process, behavior, speech, way of talking, appearance, and way of communication with other characters” (Dimino 20).

In a dramatic environment such as in films and stage performances, it is easy to lose some elements of characterization. Short stories have utilized various elements of characterization to develop their other aspects. This essay explores characterization as it is used in three short stories; “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Scarlet Ibis”, and “Thank You Ma’am” to complement the other four elements of these stories.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” adheres to the confines of direct characterization where the narrator informs the readers about the characters of various individuals. In “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the author starts by giving the readers a harrowing monologue by the main character. Interestingly, one of the initial statements in this story is “why will you say that I am mad?” (Poe 1). This statement by the narrator is a significant tool of characterization because it reveals that the main character is insane.

However, this characterization can only be deduced from the words of the narrator. For example, the author uses incomplete and sometimes confused speech to outline the insanity of the main character. The narrator is also important in revealing the character of the old man. The old man does not have any dialogue in the story but the author uses indirect characterization to reveal his characteristics (Upreti 98).

According to the narrator, the old man has an evil eye that disturbed the main character to the point of murder. The narrator resolves that the only way of avoiding this eye is through murder. This narration characterizes the narrator as insane and the old man as sickly. The old man’s eye can also be pointing out to his ability to see things that the narrator cannot perceive (Petrosky 19). Consequently, the narrator makes a connection between the old man’s eye and his tell-tale heart.

The narrator also reveals that he is a dangerous person through his actions. Throughout the story, the actions of the narrator do not reveal a definite character as he keeps changing his confessions. Sometimes the narrator indicates that he is fully aware of his actions and that he has a conscience (Dimino 20). In Poe’s story, the old man does not put up any defense when he is accosted by the narrator. This circumstance characterizes the old man as helpless and weak.

Characterization in the “Scarlet Ibis” is achieved through the narrator’s direct-characterization. The narrator who is simply referred to as ‘Brother’ only refers to the main characters using their familial positions such Brother, Mama, and Daddy. Only the main character is referred to using a nickname. It is important to note that all the other characters are named in accordance with their relation to Doodle. This characterization points towards the importance of the main character, Doodle (Mozaffari 2214).

Nevertheless, the narrator’s direct characterization complicates the main character’s importance when he says that “Mama and Daddy named him William Armstrong, which was like tying a big tail on a small kite…such a name only sounds good on a tombstone” (Hurst 3). These characterization strategies indicate that Brother is oddly harsh and prejudicial. On the other hand, it is revealed that the main character is the centre of attention throughout the story. Auntie Nicey is named thus because of her tendency to be nice towards Doodle. Brother renamed Doodle mainly because of the little boy’s physical inadequacies. Brother claims that he renamed his bother as favor to him; “renaming the little guy was perhaps the kindest thing I ever did for him…because no one expects much from someone called Doodle” (Hurst 2).

The weakness of the main character is reiterated by the narrator for most part of this story. However, in the end Brother feels guilty for having pushed Doodle too hard leading to his tragic demise. This regret reveals the conflicting nature of Brother’s character because he pushes his brother to perform although he considers him to be weak (Klarer 56).

Indirect characterization is the style of choice for Langston Hughes in his short story “Thank You Ma’am”. Most of the information that the readers know about the two main characters in “Thank You Ma’am” is learnt through the characters’ thoughts, actions, and appearances. For instance, the readers learn that Roger is unkempt from Mrs. Jones remarks; “you might run that comb through your hair so you will look presentable” (Hughes 2).

On the other hand, the readers learn about Mrs. Jones caring nature through her actions. Mrs. Jones is able to turn from being a victim to helper and this shows that she is a resourceful woman. Roger’s actions paint the picture of a conflicted character as revealed by both his actions and his thoughts. For instance, Roger losing his footing when he is snatching Mrs. Jones’ handbag is a sign of lack of commitment as a result of inner conflict (DiYanni 45). Roger is also unable to run away from Mrs. Jones as a result of his inner conflict. External conflict prompts Roger to be unable to thank Mrs. Jones when he is leaving her house; “the boy wanted to say something else other than, ‘Thank you, ma’am’ to Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones… his lips moved, he couldn’t even say that” (Hughes 2).

Characterization is part of good literature whereas the literary works of the last century feature heavy use of this stylistic device. Writers use different forms of characterization with the view of passing crucial information to their readers. Both direct and indirect forms of characterization accomplish similar goals although authors have more control where direct characterization is used.

Works Cited

Burroway, Janet, and Susan Weinberg. Writing fiction, New York: Longman Publishing Group, 2002. Print.

Dimino, Joseph. “Story grammar: An approach for promoting at-risk secondary students’ comprehension of literature.” The Elementary School Journal (1999): 19-32. Print.

DiYanni, Robert. Literature: Reading fiction, poetry, drama, and the essay, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009. Print.

Hughes, Langston. The Return of Simple, New York: Macmillan, 2011. Print.

Hurst, James. “The scarlet ibis.” Elements of Literature: Third (1960): 9-17. Print.

Klarer, Mario. An introduction to literary studies, Routledge, 2013. Print.

Mozaffari, Hamideh. “An Analytical Rubric for Assessing Creativity in Creative Writing.” Theory and Practice in Language Studies 3.12 (2013): 2214-2219. Print.

Petrosky, Anthony R. “From story to essay: Reading and writing.” College Composition and Communication (2002): 19-36. Print.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The tell-tale heart, New York: Bantam Classics, 2004. Print.

Upreti, Kabiraj. Teaching Short Stories: Challenges and Issues, Nepal: Faculty of Education Tribhuvan University, Kirtipur Kathmandu, 2012. Print.

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