Characterization in Literature and Theater

Creating effective, believable characters


Key Staff

Primary instructor

Key Skills

Developing Arts Literacies: Understanding Genres, Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique


In this lesson, students explore various methods authors use to create effective characters. Students will consider what makes a character believable and create their own characterizations. They will also write a short script using the characters they created and act out the script.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Gain insight into various methods authors use to build characterization
  • Experience the creative process of developing a character
  • Broaden understanding of the role of minor characters
  • Achieve better understanding of types of characters
  • Explore the inferential power of images and literary allusions to enhance characterization
  • Understand ways the text mirrors attitudes, values, fashions, manners, and mores of the time period
  • Experience growth in the writing process, oral skills, skills of research, contextual analysis, and collaboration

Teaching Approach

  • Thematic
  • Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Discovery Learning
  • Discussion
  • Experiential Learning
  • Research
  • Reflection

Assessment Type

Performance Assessment


What You'll Need

Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Here are some resources to help you in your lesson planning:

  • Useful information regarding character development, written by Sandra Miller (fiction author)
  • Character Development Tips
  • The Art of Character Development
  • Nancy Kress, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Dynamic Characters and Effective Viewpoints (Writer’s Digest Books, 2005)

Prior Student Knowledge

Students may have some general knowledge of characterization, but this is not necessary. Students will most likely have many ideas of effective characters they have encountered in books, movies and plays. Students should be familiar with plays and the format of a script.

Physical Space



Small Group Instruction

Accessibility Notes

Students with visual impairments or disabilities may need modified handouts or texts.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge


1. Introduce the concept of characterization with examples. Certain fictional characters seem to have a unique ability to resonate with readers: Tom Sawyer, Sidney Carton, Jane Eyre, Frodo Baggins, and Sethe Suggs to name a few.

2. Have students discuss memorable characters and devices used to create them. How do authors create such enduring characters? Through what devices do they create the mystique of these singular personalities? What are some methods authors can use to build characterization?

Build Knowledge

1. Have students brainstorm effective characters. Have students work independently to:

  • Write down the names of two favorite characters they have encountered in books they have read.
  • Make a list of specific reasons why they designated the characters as “favorites.”
  • Make a list of what they remember about how the author developed each of the two characters.

You may want to write the above steps on the board or distribute the Favorite Characters handout located within the Resource Carousel. As they brainstorm effective characters, have students consider ways the author makes the characters come to life, including each character's:

  • Physical characteristics (or lack thereof).
  • Interaction with other characters.
  • Interaction with his or her environment.
  • Internal thoughts and/or philosophical outlook.
  • Revelations about his or her past.
  • Dialect or way of speaking.

You may want to write the above list on the board or distribute the 'Favorite Characters' handout located within the Resource Carousel.

2. Have students develop their own characters. Divide the class into small groups and have students share their favorite characters’ names, rationale for selection, and details about the characters that make them come to life. In their groups, have the students develop an in-class written profile of a friend or family member, describing their subject from a range of perspectives to capture as full a description as possible for the reader.

3. Initiate an open discussion of recurring patterns of characterization observed in the students' favorite characters and/or techniques used in students' descriptions of a friend or relative. You may want to use a simple graphic organizer (simply writing a list on the board or overhead would work) to help students visualize these characteristics. Ask for volunteers to share "profile" responses.


1. Have students develop a character based on a name. Divide the class into small groups. Assign each group one of a series of names (or generate a list on the board and let each group choose one name), such as Ashley, Benjamin, Carey, Kurt, Lisa, Maureen, Newland, and Stephen. Avoid using the name of a student in the class.

2. Ask each group to negotiate, and record in writing, specific conclusions about each of the following aspects of their “person.” Remind students that their mission is to build a well-defined persona for their assigned or chosen name. Be prepared to introduce their “person” to the class. (Suggestions: Make it clear that the character should exhibit realistic characteristics. In other words, it should not be a superhuman or a cartoonish figure. Also, encourage the group to assign one or more of its members to sketch a drawing of the character.)

Each character description should include most or all of the following elements:

  • Physical description and age
  • Behavioral traits (shy, self-confident, outgoing, socially adept, etc.)
  • Body and facial language habits (toss of the head, raised eyebrow, etc.)
  • Fashion traits (conservative, trendy, etc.)
  • Prevailing linguistic characteristics (formal, informal, heavy use of slang, satirical, witty, a jokester, recurring use of images, erudite references, etc.)
  • Favorite flower
  • Favorite music
  • Special talents (musician, artist, actor, writer, scientist, mathematician, etc.)

You may want to write a list of the above characteristics on the board or distribute the Developing an Effective Character handout located within the Resource Carousel.

3. Have each group introduce their "person" to the class. Students should share the background information they have constructed in developing the characterization.

4. Have students prepare a script using their characters. Realign the small groups in such a way that characters with different names are represented in each group, for instance, Ashley with Carey, or Lisa and Maureen with Benjamin. Have students choose one of the following situations as a center-piece for developing a brief script for a scene:

  • An incident at school
  • A walk in a park
  • A social situation, such as a dance, an evening at a friend’s house, or a trip to the theater or concert
  • An unexpected meeting on the street
  • A farewell to a friend or family member
  • An encounter with an older neighbor or relative

You may want to write a list of these options on the board or distribute the Script Situations handout located within the Resource Carousel. Advise students that, in developing their scripts, they should give careful attention to sustaining such aspects as the personality, behavioral traits, linguistic characteristics, and attitudes of the characters as earlier defined.

5. Assign students to either read or perform their scripts to another group (or the whole class). Students should pay close attention to sustaining, in the dramatic projection, the integrity of the original personality, including the general outlook, linguistic and behavioral profile of the character.

6. Follow the reading or performance with a peer critique. Students should discuss how well the script and performance sustained the integrity of the characters through such aspects as content references, language use, body language, facial expressions, and behavioral attitudes.


1. Initiate a grade-level appropriate, large group discussion of some or all of the following considerations of character development. Assign students to research, in advance, the topics listed below to prepare for the discussion. Topics:

  • Trace the historical development of the concept of minor characters as an outgrowth of the strophe and antistrophe Choruses in Ancient Greek tragedy. What various purposes can minor characters serve in the building of a novel? Cite some “case studies” to clarify and support your assertions.
    For example, minor characters can build structural tensions in the narrative; act as “foil” for the protagonist; clarify emotional contexts of major characters; illuminate motives of major characters; enhance readers’ perceptions of background and setting; deepen the plot with "side stories"; contribute to foreshadowing; underscore a thematic statement; expand readers’ perceptions of how narrative, characters, events, and theme align with the universal domain; change rhythm and pace; add “comic relief.”
  • What is the difference between "flat" and "round" characters? Give some examples from literature or theater.
  • How do characters in an allegory (such as John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim’s Progress" or another allegory of your choice) differ from those of regular fiction?
  • What modes of development can an author use to reveal the "mindstream" (internal thoughts) of a character? Give some examples of this from theater or literature.
  • Through what specific ways can an author shape the personality of a character? How does the author portray, for example, a character who is gruff, stubborn, enigmatic, charismatic, or withdrawn? Provide specific examples. Teachers may want to provide students with specific texts to examine for this discussion.


Students are evaluated on the following criteria:

  • Level of serious and cooperative participation in research and collaborative assignments.
  • Substantive contributions to class discussion, creative activities, and special projects.
  • Organization, meaningful substance, rhetorical skill, and poise in formal oral presentation.
  • Willingness to volunteer for special activities.
  • General level of engagement in all activities and assignments.

Extending the Learning

Have students refine their scripts in a writer’s workshop format (integrating peer and faculty feedback). Then, have them cast and rehearse the scene. Scenes could be performed for other students or parents and teachers.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

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Jayne Karsten
Original Writer

Jen Westmoreland Bouchard

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