Pfister's Characterization

Who are these people?

As long as you continue to answer that question, you have me as a reader.

ASOIAF is loaded with every sort of characterization. Our example will be Catelyn IV. ~1,400 of the chapter’s 4,000 words (35%) reveal character in some way, and that ratio would be higher if Martin didn’t need 500 words to introduce the reader to King’s Landing. How are those 1,400 words presented? Manfred Jahn lays out a taxonomy of characterization here. And here’s a spruced up version of the resultant tree:

Let’s work our way along the branches, demonstrating what each type of characterization is good for, and how it might be done.

To begin with, we can prune the bottom branch; all characterization in ASOIAF should be understood to originate from the characters. This is a judgement call. Certainly Martin’s presence can be felt by what he chooses his characters to notice and not notice, but the POV is tight enough I’m not comfortable saying there is a narrator discrete from the characters.


When a character looks in the mirror and tells you what they see, they probably aren’t lying, but that doesn’t mean they’re accurate. Here’s where you get rationalizations and denial.

Martin doesn’t do any of that in this chapter, and in fact these characterizations could very well come from the narrator; but I think it’s more interesting if we consider these to be Catelyn’s thoughts. That “never again” in #1 and the “no longer as young” in #3 are more wistful when they’re rooted in Catelyn’s consciousness. (And tragic when you consider how little time she’ll have with her impaired fingers.)


ASOIAF is about politics, and so everyone’s trying to manage their image. A writer can have fun with that. Each public declaration of identity is an opportunity for irony or implicit characterization. There is no description more loaded than a self-description made in company. There is always some motive, some mask being donned, or else the act of definition would be unnecessary. As Jahn writes:

Auto-characterization is often marked by face- or image-saving strategies, wishful thinking, and other “subjective distortions”

What do we learn about Rodrik when he apologizes for not being a valiant protector? We learn that he’s a good guy with an aw-shucks mentality who embraces his subordination to his noble charge. A classic example of the loyal servant.

What about when Littlefinger claims he knows Catelyn too well? A presumptuous claim, and he’s a presumptuous man.


Bread and butter characterization. Facts about people, X was this, Y was that.

Figural-Explicit-Altero-Public-in praesentia

Jahn puts it nicely here:

Altero-characterization is often heavily influenced by social hierarchies and “strategic aims and tactical considerations” (Pfister 1988: 184), especially when the judgment in question is a public statement made in a dialogue (as opposed to when it is made in a character’s interior monologue – N8.9), and even more so when the person characterized is present (in praesentia – obvious case: how advisable is it to criticize a tyrant?).

These next two can be considered as a pair.


This type is likely to be pure exposition. I don’t hear much of Catelyn in this description. I think this is Martin being a good host; making introductions is a big part of hospitality, after all, and I talk elsewhere about how he likes to brief you on characters before you meet them.

Figural-Explicit-Altero-Public-in absentia-Before

Try this one out. I really believe that the popularity of Tywin and Stannis can be credited (in some part) to this style of characterization.

Figural-Explicit-Altero-Public-in absentia-After

Here we see the importance of that in praesentia vs. in absentia. Littlefinger is outrageously rude to Ned, but he wouldn’t try such a tack in the presence of the king. With Robert far away, he’s got no qualms about letting the quips fly. You probably do the same thing with your family, friends, or bosses. I find that dynamic really interesting. Sure, a kid is likely to grovel in the presence of the teacher, but are they any more accurate when the teacher’s out? The audience always exerts a pressure on the speaker; perhaps on the playground the student feels obligated to disparage a teacher that they don’t really mind.

Allow the reader to compare a variety of these descriptive modes and you’ll quickly develop some complexity that cuts a couple different ways. If the character describes the Other in three different ways, depending on context, that will raise questions about their true feelings. At the same time, the reader will be comparing each of the descriptions to the Other, to see which, if any, fit.


Now we come to implicit characterization. Almost always in progress, you will notice it if you pay attention to the verbs and adjectives the author selects. In ASOIAF, there’s a great deal of attention paid to the characters’ bodies. Petyr’s slight build is no accident, but a shorthand. This Machiavelli has a Napoleon complex! And Varys’s soft damp hands and perfume and plumpness all indicate transgressive masculinity in purple neon. But unlike the straight line between Littlefinger’s habitus and his psyche, Varys’s body is a trickier thing. I expand on this topic here.


Dialogue is Martin’s strong suit. There are many ways to write good dialogue: playwrights tend to excel in poetic speech, speech that reveals emotion (“O hell-kite! All?”); TV writers excel in banter, patter, debate (From Sorkin to Tina Fey); genre writers do well with the idiomatic and the quirky turn of phrase (Elmore Leonard, the Coen Brothers, etc.) Martin’s dialogue does a great job of revealing social dynamics. As you read these examples, notice how characters blow smoke, provoke, or deprecate each other.

Varys has certain phrases like sweet lady and grievous, alongside other traditionally feminine speech markers.

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