How Character is Presented in Fiction

Character and Characterisation:
How Character is Presented in Fiction

What follows is a practical worksheet on character and characterisation which has really helped my students get to grips with the various ways in which writers flesh out and give substance to the characters in their fiction. Understanding how character creation ‘works’ and being able to identify the various ways in which this is being done in a particular novel or short story means that we are able to reach a far deeper grasp of a character’s personality and preoccupations which, in turn, means that we will be in a stronger position to track character development in the unfolding action as the character is given difficult challenges to confront.

Please work through the material carefully, paying close attention to detail. As with most things in life, the more fully you engage with the material, the greater will be the reward. Fortunately. the method you will be using here can be used for the other prose texts that you are studying. Let us make a start.

  1. Characters are obviously of central importance in prose fiction. Make a list of the different ways in which writers can reveal their characters to their readers.
  2. Read the following extract from Jane Austen’s novel Emma:

A: Emma by Jane Austen

Mr John Knightley was a tall, gentleman-like, and very clever man; rising in his profession, domestic, and respectable in his private character; but with reserved manners which prevented his being generally pleasing; and capable of being sometimes out of humour. He was not an ill-tempered man, not so often unreasonably cross as to deserve such a reproach; but his temper was not his great perfection; and indeed, with such a worshipping wife, it was hardly possible that any natural defects in it would not be increased.

  1.   This extract presents a brief character-sketch of one of the characters in the novel.
  2.   Note down what kind of information the writer provides on the character described.
  3.   Do you learn anything about the character’s inner life or personality, or are you given purely factual information?
  4. How does the writer use language to create an impression of the character? You should think about:
  • vocabulary
  • sentence structure
  • use of imagery
  • tone
  • any other features you find interesting.7. What attitude (if any) do you think the writer wants to create towards the character in the mind of the reader?

Now read the following description of Miss Havisham, a character in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Dickens presents the character as seen through the eyes of the novel’s central character, Pip.

B: Great Expectations

In an arm-chair, with an elbow resting on the table and her head leaning on that hand, sat the strangest lady I have ever seen, or shall ever see.

She was dressed in rich materials – satins, and lace, and silks – all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses, less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks, were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on – the other was on the table near her hand – her veil was but half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief, and gloves, and some flowers, and a Prayer-book, all confusedly heaped about the looking-glass.

It was not in the first few moments that I saw all these things, though I saw more of them in the first moments than might be supposed. But, I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could.

  1.   What overall impression of Miss Havisham do you form from this description?
  2.   How does Dickens use repetition here?
  3. How does Dickens use contrasts here, and what effect do they create?
  4. Comment on the effect of Dickens’s use of listing in this extract.
  5. Comment on the effect of the following vocabulary choices:
  • ‘satins, and lace, and silks’
  • ‘jewels sparkled’
  • ‘lost its lustre’
  • ‘sunken eyes’
  • ‘shrunk to skin and bone’
  • ‘ghastly waxwork’.6. Pick out any other features that you have found striking and explain why you found them effective.Now think about a prose text that you are studying as part of the course. Choose a passage from it in which the writer presents or describes a character in some way.


  1. Write an analysis of your chosen passage, showing how language is used to create a sense of character and the effects that the writer creates. (600 – 900 words)

You might look at features such as:

  • use of vocabulary
  • use of imagery
  • use of dialogue
  • any other features you find interesting.

I hope this exercise has proved helpful. Once you have gone through this process with several of your prose texts, you will find yourself in a stronger position to compare and contrast the various techniques different writers use for the purpose. You may even perhaps identify different modes of characterisation that seem to fit with different styles of writing.

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