What is it?

Characterization is the way in which authors convey information about their characters. Characterization can be direct, as when an author tells readers what a character is like, or indirect, as when an author shows what a character is like by portraying his or her actions, speech, or thoughts. Descriptions of a character’s appearance, behavior, interests, way of speaking, and other mannerisms are all part of characterization. For stories written in the first-person point of view, the narrator’s voice, or way of telling the story, is essential to his or her characterization.

Why is it Important?

Your readers know nothing about any of these people until you tell them. Therefore, you must be vigilant in thinking about and presenting all the real people you write about — including yourself — as characters, first and foremost. They need to be brought to life to our readers in authentic, believable, and engaging ways. To connect with the reader, the writer must turn life events into a story that reads like a novel. 

How do I create it?

There are several ways to reveal your characters: action, dialogue, appearance, and crisis. The greatest of these is action. Unlike a fiction writer, who has the privilege of creating characters’ thoughts, as personal narrative essayists we can usually only speculate as to what other characters are thinking. Thus, we must rely to a large extent on the action. Also, an action is more likely to be remembered by the reader than mere words, because an action is more dramatic than dialogue. Actions can manifest in many forms: deeds, physical movement, facial expressions, etc.

In addition to actions, the way a character speaks says a great deal about his or her personality, education, and emotion. When writing your personal statement you don’t have the luxury of being in your character’s minds. So the words that come out of the their mouths form a logical connection between the internal and the external. The reader then interprets a real person’s speech and makes sense of it in the context of the story.

The reader should also be able to see your character. Facial features, body shape, style, and clothing can make statements about a person’s values, as well as his or her way of life. Another way to reveal character is through crisis. How did s/he respond to the crisis? What did the person’s behavior in time of crisis reveal about him/her?

The character could be a friend, family member, or yourself. Reveal your character through actions, dialogue, appearance, and crisis. Remember, CHARACTER IS STORY. Characters aren’t merely pegs to be inserted into a preconceived plot. Characters are living, breathing people who have made your life more interesting, and who will make your story more interesting as well.

I prefer a mix of action, dialogue, appearance. In my play Sitting in Circles with Rich White Girls: Memoirs of a Bulimic Black Boy there is a scene which involves my mom coming to school after I’ve been called a Nigger. Here I used action, dialogue, appearance and crisis to reveal a mother.

Scanning the parking lot again, I let out an excited sigh as I see Mom and her unkempt mop of hair barreling down the breezeway as if she were fifty pounds lighter. Wearing black elastic mail order pants, an iridescent, polyester butterfly blouse, horn rim sunglasses, a dime store rain bonnet, and an unnecessary windbreaker. Noticing me, she waves. She waves to say I’m here. Waves to say, I’m sorry. Entering the main office, and with a fractured smile, she removes her horn rim sunglasses, exposing a set of teary eyes, embraces me, and whispers. “Beloved. This ends today.” When writing for stage, the action and dialogue come easily. However there are times when it is important for the audience to see a younger Chad. In these cases, I often use appearance. Here I am describing fifteen-year- old Chad.

I told him I’d be standing by the pipe organ wearing peach. In hindsight, that may have been an understatement: my outfit consisted of peach linen pants, a long-sleeve peach paisley shirt and a peach cashmere cardigan sweater, all accented by a bottle green chenille scarf. – FIERCE 


Use these exercises to help you begin and/or analyze your admissions essay.

  • Describe your family members as if they were characters in a novel. 
  • Use items contained in your wardrobe to describe your personality.
  • Describe you and your best friend using action. 
  • Describe your least favorite teacher using dialogue. 
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