Characters and their development
Quick revise

After studying this section you should be able to:

  • recognise ways in which writers can create characters
  • understand some of the functions of characters in a narrative
  • understand some of the ways in which writers can reveal characters to their readers

When reading a novel, much of the interest lies in the characters whom we meet. Don’t forget, though, that although the writer is trying hard to convince us that they are real, we must not forget, as students of literature, that they are creations of the writer. We need to be analytical in our approach and be able to see how language has been used to create and present them and to understand the role they perform in the narrative.

In a novel, characters are revealed to us in a number of ways.

Progress check

Think about any novel that you have read and write down two ways in which you learned about characters.

Here are some of the ways that characters are revealed to us:

  • through the description of them given to us by the narrator
  • through the dialogue of the novel – in other words by what they say and what others say about them
  • the thoughts and feelings that they have
  • how they behave and react to other characters
  • through the writer’s use of imagery and symbols. Characters may be described using similes or metaphors, or be associated symbolically with a colour or element. Heathcliffe, in Wuthering Heights, for example, is often linked with fire and with the colour black.

Progress check

Here are some introductory character sketches from Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Read them through carefully and make notes on the following:

  • What do you learn about each character from the author’s description?
  • Are you just given factual information or do you learn anything about the character’s ‘inner life’?
  • What particular words or phrases strike you as effective in each description?
  • Does the author seem to have a particular attitude towards the character?
*1 Why, Mr Bounderby was as near being Mr Gradgrind’s bosom friend, as a man perfectly devoid of sentiment can approach that spiritual relationship towards another man perfectly devoid of sentiment. So near was Mr Bounderby – or, if the reader should prefer it, so far off.

He was a rich man: banker, merchant, manufacturer, and what not. A big, loud man, with a stare and a metallic laugh. A man made out of a coarse material, which seemed to have been stretched to make so much of him. A man with a great puffed head and forehead, swelled veins in his temples, and such a strained skin to his face that it seemed to hold his eyes open and lift his eyebrows up. A man with a pervading appearance on him of being inflated like a balloon, and ready to start. A man who could never sufficiently vaunt himself a self-made man. A man who was always proclaiming, through that brassy speaking-trumpet of a voice of his, his old ignorance and his old poverty. A man who was the Bully of humility.

A year or two younger than his eminently practical friend, Mr Bounderby looked older; his seven or eight and forty might have had the seven or eight added to it again, without surprising anybody. He had not much hair. One might have fancied he had talked it off; and that what was left, all standing up in disorder, was in that condition from being constantly blown about by his windy boastfulness.

from Hard Times by Charles Dickens

*2 PAUL WOULD be built like his mother, slightly and rather small. His fair hair went reddish, and then dark brown; his eyes were grey. He was a pale, quiet child, with eyes that seemed to listen, and with a full, dropping underlip.

As a rule he seemed old for his years. He was so conscious of what other people felt, particularly his mother. When she fretted he understood, and could have no peace. His soul seemed always attentive to her.
As he grew older he became stronger. William was too far removed from him to accept him as a companion. So the smaller boy belonged at first almost entirely to Annie. She was a tom-boy and a ‘flybie-skybie’, as her mother called her.

But she was intensely fond of her second brother. So Paul was towed round at the heels of Annie, sharing her game. She raced wildly at lerky with the other young wild-cats of the Bottoms. And always Paul flew beside her, living her share of the game, having as yet no part of his own. He was quiet and not noticeable. But his sister adored him. He always seemed to care for things if she wanted him to.

from Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence

Between him and Darcy there was a very steady friendship, in spite of a great opposition of character – Bingley was endeared to Darcy by the easiness, openness, ductility of his temper, though no disposition could offer a greater contrast to his own, and though with his own he never appeared dissatisfied. On the *3 strength of Darcy’s regard Bingley had the firmest reliance, and of his judgment the highest opinion. In understanding Darcy was the superior. Bingley was by no means deficient, but Darcy was clever. He was at the same time haughty, reserved, and fastidious, and his manners, though well bred, were not inviting. In that respect his friend had greatly the advantage. Bingley was sure of being liked wherever he appeared, Darcy was continually giving offence.

The manner in which they spoke of the Meryton assembly was sufficiently characteristic. Bingley had never met with pleasanter people or prettier girls in his life; everybody had been most kind and attentive to him, there had been no formality, no stiffness, he had soon felt acquainted with all the room; and as to Miss Bennet, he could not conceive an angel more beautiful. Darcy, on the contrary, had seen a collection of people in whom there was little beauty and no fashion, for none of whom he had felt the smallest interest, and from none received either attention or pleasure. Miss Bennet he acknowledged to be pretty, but she smiled too much.

from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen


  • *1 What impression is created by Bounderby
  • *2 Which members of the family does Lawrence link Paul with?
  • *3 What differences between Darcy and Bingley are highlighted here?


In the first extract Bounderby is very much defined by his physical appearance although we are given other details about him too. For example, we are told that he is a man ‘devoid of sentiment’. We are also told that he is rich. Dickens’s description of him as being like a balloon gives the impression of someone far too full of his own importance which is confirmed by reference to his ‘brassy voice’ and ‘windy boastfulness’. It seems clear from the tone and content of Dickens’s description that he is not presenting a character he wanted to appeal to his reader, rather one who represented values with which he himself had no sympathy.

In the second extract it is clear that Paul is very much associated with his mother and with his older sister. The references to him being ‘pale’ and ‘quiet’ ‘with eyes that seemed to listen’ and having ‘a full, dropping underlip’ give the impression of a rather sad, thoughtful child. He is perhaps physically not very strong and we are told ‘he seemed old for his years’. He is very close to his sister and he seems sensitive and caring about her. All these details are conveyed to us through the third-person narration.

In the third extract Darcy is described as an intelligent man, more intelligent than Bingley, in fact, but unlike Bingley we are told that he was often ‘haughty and reserved’. Austen uses their very different reactions to the people they have met to highlight the difference between the two, often using very subtle hints such as Darcy’s view of Miss Bennet who – ’he acknowledged to be pretty, but she smiled too much’.

KEY POINT - We learn about characters in many different ways and writers can create and present them in many different ways.

Progress check

Now look at the text you are studying and make a list of the central characters. For each character make brief notes on how the writer reveals details about them to the reader.

Development of character

Now let’s look at character in more detail. Very often, in an exam question, you are asked to look at the ways in which a character is presented and how they relate to other characters or change and develop throughout the course of the novel.

Read the following extract carefully. It is from D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and describes how the young Gertrude Coppard had met the man she was to marry, Walter Morel.

When she was twenty-three years old, she met, at a Christmas party, a young man from the Erewash Valley. Morel was then twenty-seven years old. He was well set-up, erect, *1 and very smart. He had wavy black hair that shone again, and a vigorous black beard that had never been shaved. His cheeks were ruddy, and his red, moist mouth was noticeable because he laughed so often. And so heartily. He had that rare thing, a *2 rich ringing laugh. Gertrude Coppard had watched him, fascinated. He was so full of colour and animation, his voice ran so easily into comic grotesque, he was so ready and so pleasant with everybody. Her own father had a rich fund of humour, but it was satiric. This man’s was different: soft, non-intellectual, warm, a kind of gambolling.

She herself was opposite. She had a curious, receptive mind, which found much pleasure and amusement in listening to other folk. She was clever in leading folk on to talk. She loved ideas and was considered very intellectual. What she liked most of all was an argument on religion or philosophy or politics with some educated man. This she did not often enjoy. So she always had people tell her about themselves, finding her pleasure so.

In her person she was rather small and delicate, with a large brow, and dropping bunches of brown silk curls. *3 Her blue eyes were very straight, honest, and searching. She had the beautiful hands of the Coppards. Her dress was always subdued. She wore dark blue silk, with a peculiar silver chain of silver scallops. This, and a heavy brooch of twisted gold, was her only ornament. She was still perfectly intact, deeply religious, and full of beautiful candour.

Walter Morel seemed melted away before her. She was to the miner that thing of mystery and fascination, a lady. When she spoke to him, it was with a southern pronunciation and a purity of English which thrilled him to hear. She watched him. He danced well, as if it were natural and joyous in him to dance. His grandfather was a French refugee who had married an English barmaid – if it had been a marriage. Gertrude Coppard watched the young miner as he danced, a certain subtle exultation like glamour in his movement, and his face the flower of his body, ruddy, with tumbled black hair, and laughing alike whatever partner he bowed above. She thought him rather wonderful, never having met anyone like him. Her father was to her the type of all men. And George Coppard, proud in his bearing, handsome, and rather bitter; who preferred theology in reading, and who drew near in sympathy only to one man, the Apostle Paul; who was harsh in government, and in familiarity ironic; who ignored all sensuous pleasure; – he was very different from the miner. Gertrude herself was rather contemptuous of dancing; she had not the slightest inclination towards that accomplishment, and had never learned even a Roger de Coverley. She was a puritan, like her father, high-minded, and really stern. Therefore the dusky, golden softness of this man’s sensuous flame of life, that flowed off his flesh like the flame from a candle, not baffled and gripped into incandescence by thought and spirit as her life was, seemed to her something wonderful, beyond her.

He came and bowed above her. A warmth radiated through her as if she had drunk wine.
‘Now do come and have this one wi’ me,’ he said caressively. ‘It’s easy, you know. I’m pining to see you dance.
*4 ’ She had told him before she could not dance. She glanced at his humility and smiled. Her smile was very beautiful. It moved the man so that he forgot everything.
‘No, I won’t dance,’ she said softly. Her words came clean and ringing.
Not knowing what he was doing – he often did the right thing by instinct – he sat beside her, inclining reverentially. ‘But you mustn’t miss your dance,’ she reproved.
‘Nay, I don’t want to dance that – it’s not one as I care about.’
‘Yet you invited me to it.’
He laughed very heartily at this.
‘I never thought o’ that. Tha’rt not long in taking the curl out of me.’
It was her turn to laugh quickly.
‘You don’t look as if you’d come much uncurled,’ she said.
‘I’m like a pig’s tail, I curl because I canna help it,’ he laughed, rather boisterously.
‘And you are a miner!’ she exclaimed in surprise.
‘Yes. I went down when I was ten.’
She looked at him in wondering dismay.
‘When you were ten! And wasn’t it very hard?’ she asked.
‘You soon get used to it. You live like th’ mice, an’ you pop out at night to see what’s going on.’
‘It makes me feel blind,’ she frowned.
‘Like a moudiwarp! he laughed. ‘Yi, an’ there’s some chaps as does go round like moudiwarps.’ He thrust his face forward in the blind, snout-like way of a mole, seeming to sniff and peer for direction.

from Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence


  • *1 Notice the vocabulary ‘erect’, ‘vigorous’, ‘ruddy’.
  • *2 What is the significance of the laugh.
  • *3 How does this description of Gertrude contrast with that of Morel?
  • *4 Notice Morel’s dialect speech form, whereas Gertrude speaks in standard English? Why does Lawrence do this?

Progress check

Study the passage closely and then answer the following questions.

  • How do you learn about the characters of Gertrude and Morel?
  • What kind of imagery or ideas does Lawrence associate with each of the characters?
  • What is revealed about each of the characters through the dialogue?
  • What indications are here that they may not be a very well matched couple?


In the extract Lawrence very carefully defends his characters. Morel is described very much through his physical appearance, his ‘vigorous’ beard, his ‘ruddy’ cheeks and his ‘red’ mouth giving an impression of life and vitality and fire. His ‘rich, ringing laugh’ adds to the picture of a sensuous and attractive man. Lawrence tells us that Gertrude is the opposite of this man and he describes her through her mind and intellect. Where he does use physical description with Gertrude it is linked with her character. For example, her ‘blue eyes were very straight and honest and searching’, ‘her dress was always subdued’. Lawrence accentuates the difference between them through the dialogue. Morel speaks in the broad Nottinghamshire dialect of the miner whereas Gertrude speaks in the standard English of the educated lady. Nevertheless she is drawn to him in the same way as opposites are said to attract. She has never encountered a man like him before and she is fascinated by him. However, there are signs that a relationship between them would be destined to failure because the attraction is very much based on the physical but underneath they have quite different characters, and Lawrence is very clear to highlight these differences.

KEY POINT - It is important to look at the ways in which characters are presented and the ways in which they interact with each other. The author often uses these aspect to convey information to the audience.

Progress check

Now look at the characters in the text that you are studying. Choose THREE of these characters and examine the ways in which the writer presents them to the reader.


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