How does the author develop or reveal character? Give three examples from "The Ransom of Red Chief."

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tinicraw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Understanding characters' personalities can be achieved through direct or indirect characterization. Direct characterization is when the personality or traits of a character are explicitly expressed by the author, another character, or the character himself. On the other hand, indirect characterization is when the reader must infer what the character is like based on implicit evidence. O. Henry uses both techniques to describe his characters in "The Ransom of Red Chief."

First, Johnny Dorset is the boy that Bill and Sam kidnap for ransom. He puts up a strong physical fight when he is taken away, which indirectly shows that he has a fighting personality rather than a docile one. Johnny does describe himself directly for his captors, as well:

"I like this fine. I never camped out before; but I had a pet 'possum once, and I was nine last birthday. I hate to go to school."

These direct comments explain that Johnny likes camping, hasn't done it before, had a possum, is nine years old, and hates school. No inference is needed to understand these little tidbits about Johnny's character.

O. Henry then gives the reader a little more insight into Johnny as he develops his character over the course of the story. For example, Johnny makes threats as he plays the role of Red Chief. He tells Bill that he will scalp him at daybreak and Sam will burn "at the stake at the rising of the sun." The men first think that these are merely idle threats, but the more they learn about the boy, the more they believe him. This adds suspense to the story because if the little boy really does do these things to these men, does that mean that he is a violent predator rather than the helpless victim?

The reader must read the rest of the story to discover more about the character of Johnny Dorset. When the sun does start to rise the next morning, Bill screams in horror as he finds Red Chief sitting on his chest with a knife in one hand and a handful of hair in the other. This image implies that Johnny really means to scalp this man! If it weren't for Sam stopping the assault, he may have, but that is left up to the reader to ponder. When Sam gets up before his promised burning at the stake, he tells Bill that his shoulder hurts and he's not trying to avoid the boy. Bill says the following that reveals more about Johnny:

"You're afraid. You was to be burned at sunrise, and you was afraid he'd do it. And he would, too, if he could find a match. Ain't it awful, Sam?"

Bill's testimony about Johnny characterizes the little boy as viewed by his kidnappers. He's that scary and threatening, apparently. Whether Johnny would actually hurt them is never revealed, but it's enough to know that he's intimidating enough to shake two adult men.

Finally, things escalate quickly for Bill after another day with Johnny. He explains to Sam the following:

"He put a red-hot boiled potato down my back. . . and then mashed it with his foot; and I boxed his ears. Have you got a gun about you, Sam?"

Some interesting facts are revealed about Bill, too. He finally gets enough of Red Chief's shenanigans to actually punch him a few times to get him to stop. Bill is so scared about being with Johnny that he is willing to use a gun to control him. This pattern of behavior continues and escalates throughout the story until the kidnappers pay Johnny's dad to take him back. The characters of the kidnappers are revealed as those who are not capable of handling a nine year-old boy or a proper kidnapping and ransom.