Definition of Character Writing

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy
Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy, the title character in the movies Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (DreamWorks, 2004) and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (Paramount, 2013).

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A brief descriptive sketch of a class or type of person (such as a city slicker, a country bumpkin, or a grumpy old man) rather than of an individual personality.

Character-writing became a popular literary form in England following the publication in 1592 of a Latin translation of Theophrastus, an ancient Greek writer of similar sketches. Characters eventually became more individualized and were integrated with the essay and the novel.

Also Known As: character sketch

Examples of Character Writing


From the Latin ("mark, distinctive quality") from the Greek ("scratch, engrave")

Observations and Examples:

  • The 17th-century character writings reflected the assumptions of the period about the nature of human beings, but they also conditioned the ways in which subsequent authors would for a time treat character...The great strength of the character sketch as a genre was its ability to create a single unified impression of a person, whether as an individual or a type. The succinctness essential for producing this effect carried inherent limitations. Character sketches tended to be reductive. Each of the early forms, for differing reasons, oversimplified the human beings they depicted."
    (James Engell, Johnson and His Age. Harvard University Press, 1984)
  • Modern Example of a Character: The Anchorman
    "He graduated from drama school and looked for parts in television. Because he had prognathous jaws like a cowboy's and every cilium of his light-brown hair seemed to be nailed into his skull for keeps, he was steered into the news department. At first, like all beginning newscasters, he had to leave the building...He would stand in front of the building and hold a microphone covered in black styrofoam and recite AP or UPI copy about [an] event. He could do this without skipping a beat, and he maintained his head of hair nearly intact, and soon he did not have to leave the building anymore. He was promoted to the anchor desk of the station's six o'clock news broadcast, where he reads the AP and UPI copy from the Teleprompter. Only two things stand in the way of his goal of reaching the network news desk. One is the Anchorwoman, a fireproof blonde who is so aggressive, such a nutcracker, that she terrifies him. His on-air Happy Hour Chitchat with her sounds as if it is being extracted by water torture. The other is the ever-so-imperceptibly widening part in his hair."
    (Tom Wolfe, "Success Stories: The Anchorman." In Our Time, Farrar, 1980)
  • The Theophrastian Character
    "Theophrastus (c. 371-287 BC) was a Greek rhetorician and philosopher. Today he is best remembered for what he considered a minor work, his Characters, a series of sketches originally intended as models for students of rhetoric. The Characters (the word in Greek meant 'distinctive marks') consists of satires of comic, foolish, or cloddish types. The sketches follow a formula: first a definition of the trait to be illustrated, then a number of situations and responses that dramatically reveal the trait in terms of behavior. For example, 'After dinner, the waiter brings the check; the stingy man drops his napkin and hides beneath the table until someone else has paid.'"
    (Thomas S. Kane and Leonard J. Peters, Writing Prose: Techniques and Purposes, 6th ed. Oxford University Press, 1986)
  • Classic Example of a Character: The Penurious Man
    "The Penurious man is one who, while the month is current, will come to one's house and ask for a half-obol [a silver coin]. When he is at the table with others he will count how many cups each of them has drunk; and will pour a smaller libation to Artemis than any of the company. Whenever a person has made a good bargain for him and charges him with it, he will say that it is too dear. When a servant has broken a jug or a plate he will take the value out of his rations; or, if his wife has dropped a three-farthing piece, he is capable of moving the furniture and the sofas and the wardrobes, and of rummaging in the curtains. If he has anything to sell he will dispose of it at such a price that the buyer shall have no profit. He is not likely to let one eat a fig from his garden, or walk through his land, or pick up one of the olives or dates that lie on the ground, and he will inspect his boundaries day by day to see if they remain the same. He is apt, also, to enforce the right of distraining, and to exact compound interest. When he feasts the men of his parish, the cutlets set before them will be small: when he markets, he will come in having bought nothing. And he will forbid his wife to lend salt, or a lamp-wick, or cummin, or verjuice, or meal for sacrifice, or garlands, or cakes; saying that these trifles come to much in the year. Then, in general, it may be noticed that the moneyboxes of the penurious are mouldy, and the keys rusty; that they themselves wear their cloaks scarcely reaching to the thigh; that they anoint themselves from very small oil-flasks; that they have their hair cut close; that they take off their shoes in the middle of the day; and that they are urgent with the fuller to let their cloak have plenty of earth, in order that it may not soon be soiled."
    (The Characters of Theophrastus, edited and translated by R.C. Jebb. Macmillan, 1870)