The Color of Water was written by James McBride and tells both his story and his mother's in alternating chapters. Each of them is on a journey. McBride's is a journey from boyhood to adult in search of his heritage, something he always felt was somehow hidden from him. Ruth's is a journey from silence to revelation as she reveals the past she has kept hidden for so long. Characterization is important in this novel because of McBride's quest to find his identity (the characteristics which represent who he is).
McBride uses several techniques to portray his characters, and all of them are found in the following quote. As a boy, McBride sees that his mother cries during church and it upsets him. When he asks her about it, Ruth says she cries in church because God makes her happy. This does not make sense to her son, though he tells her he understands. To him, her tears seem to come from somewhere very deep inside her, a "place far away, a place inside her that she never let any of us children visit." Even though he is young, McBride can sense her pain.
On the way home from church, the two of them have this short but poignant conversation:
I thought it was because she wanted to be black like everyone else in church, because maybe God liked black people better, and one afternoon on the way home from church I asked her whether God was black or white.
A deep sigh. "Oh boy… God’s not black. He’s not white. He’s a spirit… God is the color of water. Water doesn’t have a color."
Notice several things. First, McBride tells his readers what he thinks but follows it up with the truth, in this case provided by his mother directly. Second, he uses a combination of narration and dialogue, and the dialogue is perfectly suited to each character. In this case, Ruth talks to him in her rhythmical black dialect (which, by the way, is part of why he is so confused about his racial identity). Finally, he repeats key words and phrases to reinforce his characterization. Notice how many times race is mentioned in this short exchange with his mother; that is not surprising, because race is one of the mysterious things about her, both for McBride and for the reader.