In this article we explore the differences and relationship between character and characterization. We can think of characterization simply as the outward appearance of a person or, more specifically, as the observable aspects of that person. This may include how he dresses, what he drives, where he chooses to live, what he does for work, how smart he is, etc.
But what is character? Here we are speaking of character not simply as “a character in a story” (for example, the protagonist or antagonist), but rather as “a person’s character.” If you think of someone you know—e.g. your best friend, a parent, or a mentor—how would you describe his or her character? Is she courageous, joyful, humble?
There are depths beyond simply what we can observe on the surface. In his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, Robert McKee defines character as follows:
“TRUE CHARACTER is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure—the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”1McKee, Story, 100.
Note that character is shown via what one chooses under pressure. For instance, let’s say there is a man—let’s call him Chris—driving along the highway alongside a river. He’s late for an appointment at work but is stuck on a one-lane highway behind a minivan full of kids. Anxious about getting to work, Chris contemplates driving around the minivan when, suddenly, he watches in shock as the minivan’s rear tire blows out and looses control. In the blink of an eye, the minivan has veered off the road and plunges into the river. Chris hits his breaks, watching as the minivan sinks deeper, stuck against a giant boulder. What does he do now?
He is late for work. Does he just call 911 and go on? Maybe he doesn’t even call 911. If so, this choice would reveal something of Chris’s character: he doesn’t care about the lives of others, he is selfish. But what if he does decide to do something? Say he jumps out of his car and runs to the riverside. His mind is racing. If he jumps in, will the river take him? Let’s add that Chris doesn’t know how to swim and he is deathly afraid of water. Flashback to when he was ten years old and he nearly drowned in a very similar river while white water rafting on a family vacation. Back to the present where the car
Chris, in a moment of decision, runs back to his car and pulls out his tire iron. Then, he races a few yards upstream, jumps into the freezing river, and lets it carry him to the minivan. With the tire iron, he is able to smash through the rear window. The kids inside are screaming, but he can barely hear it over the rushing water. One by one he helps the kids out of the car and helps them to shore. Soon the parents are out too, just before the car sinks completely and is swept away down river.
What does this choice tell us about Chris’s character? Perhaps it tells us that, deep down, he is courageous and selfless—despite his fear of water, inability to swim, and being late for work, he still chooses to help.
The point is that character is revealed by the choices one makes under pressure. Someone may act courageous in everyday circumstances, but when really faced with a decision like Chris’s, would that person really be courageous or a coward? Of course, there are other aspects of character besides whether or not someone is courageous. Perhaps the choice reveals their biases. As McKee writes, “At the heart of his humanity, what will we find? Is he loving or cruel? Generous or selfish? Strong or weak? Truthful or a liar? Courageous or cowardly?”2
Lastly, it is important to note that the person’s characterization doesn’t necessarily need to match her character. Maybe she dresses one way, but once you get to know her via the choices she makes under pressure, she really isn’t who you thought she would be. The difference and relationship between character and characterization can be helpful as we develop the characters (i.e. the protagonist, antagonist, and the whole cast of supporting characters) of our stories.
1 Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 100. Kindle Edition.
2 McKee, Story, 100.