Key Literary Terms: Characterization, Setting, Metaphor, Mood, Imagery

5 Literary Terms You Should Know

A pattern of stressed (accented) and unstressed syllables in a line of poetry.

Literary devices are techniques that allow writers to convey deeper meaning in their work through word choice and sentence structure. Examples of literary devices include personification, metaphors and similes. Literary terms can also describe a story’s mood.

1. Characterization

Characterization (care-ak-tur-ih-ZEY-shun) is when authors use details to teach readers about a character’s personality. They might convey this in various ways: direct and indirect.

Direct characterization involves telling conclusive details about a character, which can be done through physical descriptions and dialogue. It reveals a character’s inner thoughts, actions, and effects on other characters.

Indirect characterization is more subtle, showing character traits through actions and words without explicitly stating them. It’s often done through dialogue and internal monologue, and it can reveal a character’s motivations, psychology, and personalities.

The most common characterization is that of protagonists and antagonists. Protagonists exemplify positive or heroic qualities, such as courage and perseverance. Antagonists, on the other hand, embody negative or antisocial traits. For example, Rodion Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is an antihero.

2. Setting

The setting of a narrative describes the physical locale and time frame where the action takes place. Setting is a key part of characterization, as it shapes the main characters and their motivations by providing a context for them to act.

The character’s environment may be entirely fictional, such as the city of Dublin in James Joyce’s novels, or it could be an actual locale magnified by the author, like Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Settings can also include social milieus, weather and historical periods.

A simile is a comparison using “like” or “as” to emphasize the qualities that the things being compared share. Pathos is a type of rhetoric that appeals to the emotions by evoking compassion or pity in the audience of a novel or a play.

3. Metaphor

Metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two unrelated things, people, places or ideas in order to make them seem more descriptive. For example, when you say someone has a heart of stone or they feel like they are on the edge of a precipice, you’re using metaphor to describe how rough their emotions are.

Some metaphors are so widely used they lose their power and become cliches. Others are so powerful, they transcend cliche and become a part of our everyday language. Examples include, “all the world’s a stage” and “the night is a dark and dangerous place.”

There are several types of metaphors, including line-level and story-level. Line-level metaphors work instantly, while story-level metaphors build on the deeper meaning of a narrative.

4. Mood

Mood is the overall feeling that a piece of writing evokes in readers. This can be positive or negative, but it usually involves a certain degree of tension or uncertainty.

Like tone, mood depends on a number of factors. The setting, imagery, character reactions, and conflict outcomes all play a role in creating the right atmosphere. Diction can also have a significant effect on mood, since different words carry different meanings.

Mood can be confusing to understand, especially because it’s often conflated with the concept of atmosphere. Mood is more specific to the emotions that are evoked in readers, whereas atmosphere focuses on the general feeling of the text. For example, a spooky Pacific Northwest setting might create an ominous mood while a warm and fuzzy romance might create a lighthearted mood.

5. Imagery

Imagery is a literary device that helps authors engage their readers physically, mentally, and emotionally. It does this by appealing to the reader’s senses, such as sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.

Visual imagery is the most common form of imagery in literature. It appeals to the reader’s sight by describing what a scene or character looks like.

Literary imagery also contains figurative language, such as metaphors and similes. It can also be kinesthetic (related to movement) or organic (related to sensations within the body). When done well, imagery is one of the most effective tools that writers have for transporting their readers into their story.

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