What a great question! When we look closely at how authors bring characters to life—that is, how they achieve characterization—we should definitely check out those three things: speech (how they talk and what they say), actions (what they do), and interactions (how they talk and behave with each other).
Let’s call those three things methods of characterization. (There are more than three, but those are a great start!)
And let’s take each of those methods in turn and find some examples from Mark Twain’s “Cub Pilot on the Mississippi.” Twain is a pro at bringing his characters to life, especially with dialect, so we’re bound to find lots of great examples.
First Method of Characterization: Speech. How Characters Talk and What They Say.
Here’s what Brown says when the narrator is clumsily attempting to fill the stove:
“‘Put down that shovel! Derndest numskull I ever saw—ain’t even got sense enough to load up a stove.’”
Read that out loud to get the full effect of Brown’s dialect. Can you hear how his language is so very southern, so very relaxed, so clearly demonstrating his lack of education? And hear how blunt he is toward the narrator, calling him a name (“numbskull”) and insulting his inability to perform a manual task. Wow. Not only are we getting a clear picture of Brown’s tyrannical attitude and his crude, even cruel, manners, but we’re also feeling sympathetic toward the narrator for bearing the brunt of it all.
Second Method of Characterization: Actions. What Characters Do.
Here’s what Brown does when he first meets the narrator:
“My new boss turned and inspected me deliberately and painstakingly from head to heel for about—as it seemed to me—a quarter of an hour.”
How awkward! We realize that the narrator is exaggerating when he says it took fifteen minutes for Brown to scrutinize him. Still, when we see what Brown does in this moment, we realize quite a lot about his character. He’s careful, thorough, and detailed. He’s not afraid to make people uncomfortable—he either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that it’s impolite to stare at someone.
Third Method of Characterization: Interactions. How Characters Talk Together and Behave Together.
After Brown verbally abuses the narrator over and over, and after the narrator fantasizes about killing Brown, let’s see how the two characters interact as their mutual dislike escalates into violence:
“Brown, with a sudden access of fury, picked up a tenpound lump of coal and sprang after him; but I was between, with a heavy stool, and I hit Brown a good blow which stretched him out.”
This is quite an interaction! The narrator leaps into action, attacking Brown before Brown can hurl the heavy coal at the innocent boy, Henry. We’re seeing Brown’s vicious nature come to life before our eyes, and we’re seeing the narrator’s quiet acceptance of abuse suddenly shatter, his silent dreams of hurting Brown suddenly becoming reality.
To sum up, the three methods above are powerful tools for analyzing characters. Any time you see a character interact with someone else, do something, or say something, you’re probably witnessing characterization, a lively process at the heart of realistic, engaging stories, especially those told by Mark Twain.