Chaucer has often been compared with Dickens for the wide variety of characters he has presented in the The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. However, what is noteworthy is that, while Dickens specialised in "odd" and abnormal characters, Chaucer's characters are supremely normal human beings.
Chaucer's characterization has the objectivity of the dramatic artist.
The pilgrims presented in The Prologue are not spokesmen of Chaucer but have been given their separate identities. The personal likes and dislikes of Chaucer do not enter into the general portraiture. The dramatic method of revealing character through dialogues is employed by Chaucer in the Tales and the links', but not in The General Prologue. In The Prologue, however, Chaucer employs the narrative method mostly.
Chaucer had the ability to invest a character with typical and individual traits at the same time.
He captures the essence of each class of society as existent in the England of the Middle Ages. The corruption of the Church is exemplified by the Friar, Monk, Pardoner and the Summoner. The dishonesty of the Reeve and the Miller is typical of the age, and the Sergeant of Law is typically unscrupulous. However, none of these characters remain merely a 'type'. The Reeve has long and thin legs while the Miller's wart surmounted by a tuft of hair is justly famous in the annals of English literature. The Summoner has yellow strands of hair. The Wife of Bath is somewhat deaf and 'gat-toothed'. Such touches give a quality of distinctness to the characters, making them individual and specifically different from one another, and thus leading to the realistic presentation. There is a delicate balance kept by Chaucer between the typical and individual elements in characterization.
Distinctness of every character is maintained
While the Miller, the Reeve and the Cook exhibit coarseness, yet the vulgarity of each is different from that of another. Though sharing the corruptness of the Church of the times, the Summoner, the Pardoner, the Friar and the Monk all maintain a separate individuality in their specific brand of corruption.
Use of contrast in characterization is a valuable aspect which Chaucer exploits with skill. The poor Parson's "genuinely Christian behaviour" is implicitly contrasted with the behaviour of the other members of the Church. The Knight with his long standing chivalric ideals is contrasted with his more light hearted son. We get an impression that the Knight even in his youth was quite unlike what his son is now. The Plowman's integrity brings out in bold relief the rascality of the Reeve and the Miller. The boisterous and forthright Wife of Bath is strikingly contrasted with the delicate, mincing Prioress.
Technique of describing characters
Chaucer seems to have been influenced by Cicero in some of his characterization methods. By this method, a character was methodically described according to nature, manner of life, economic status, habit, interests, purposes, achievements, and what a person will say. The Wife of Bath is superb example of this method of characterization. In about thirty natural lines, she appears as a rounded personality. We get her origin and bodily quality—she was from Bath and was somewhat deaf. Her manner of living was cloth making in which she surpassed the workmen of Ypres and Gaunt. Her rank was among the first for in the parish no other woman could go to the collection box before her. If anybody did, she was vexed enough to lose all charity. She wore a scarlet hose and soft new shoes. She had a bold, fair and red face and wore ten-pound heavy kerchiefs on her head. She had married five times, not to mention other companions in youth. Her achievements include three journeys to Jerusalem, and visits to Rome, Cologne and St. James's in Galitia. She was specially knowledgeable in travelling and her interests were remedies of love. As for conversation, she knew how to laugh and joke in company.
Chaucer does not follow only one method of characterization. He takes bits from various theories and applies them to suit his need. Thus when he describes the Franklin as a 'sanguine' man he is using medical approach to character which divided personalities according to the preponderance of one of the elements, fire, air, earth and water. The Reeve is a choleric, given to deceit, anger, greed and Trickery. The Pardoner is described in terms which a doctor of those days would have diagnosed as a eunuch from birth. We may say that Chaucer made use of the medical lore prevalent in his day much as a modern writer would make use of Freud's discoveries.
Deliberate disorder in presentation The Prologue which describes the pilgrims takes them up one by one, building the portraits with those details which are most likely to strike the eye of a fellow-traveller. A deliberately contrived disorder marks the manner in which the facts about each character are brought before us. The Cook is an example of this natural, disordered way of character presentation. The colour of the Monk's horse is casually mentioned at the end of his description, and then the Friar is introduced in the same couplet.
Comic vision informs Chaucer's characterization. Chaucer sees abuses but does not appear to be offended by them. He accepts people with all their shortcomings, for didn't God make them all ? He sees the absurdity, not to be exposed with bitterness but to be laughed at and relished. His characterization is devised towards this end—to make us relish the fun of life.
Chaucer employs a different method for almost every pilgrim. The sketches are very brief, but he conveys depth by including snatches of conversation, and by describing the activities and dwelling places of the characters. There is a variety of moods. Characters are not described in the ironical mode alone. There is an element of idealization in the characterization of all the pilgrims—each of them, whether good or bad, is represented as the perfection of his or her kind. The sight exaggerate sharpens the outlines of the sketches.
Chaucer's characters get a bounded' look. It is so because of his ability to give subtle and complex touches to them. The Wife of Bath is one such example of an intricate subtlety evading easy interpretation. The Monk is a hedonist but not a humbug, and thus cannot be lumped together with the Pardoner and the Summoner. While he is 'self-indulgent', he is also conscious of his dignity.
Descriptive method is used by Chaucer in 'The Prologue. The pilgrims are graphically described by Chaucer. Apt details are given, regarding dress, appearance, facial features, and other characteristics. In this simple and direct manner, he presents life like portraits before us.
Close resemblance is established by Chaucer between the external features and the internal nature of the characters. Thus the elegant dress of the Squire reflects his youth and carefree way of life. The Knight's battle stained dress established his true faith in the pilgrimage, for he has come straight after a crusade to journey to Canterbury. The Prioress's motto is delightfully ambiguous—does the 'Amor vincit omnia' refer to secular or divine love ?
Conclusion. The Canterbury Tales, as a whole, shows Chaucer's skill in handling all the methods of characterization—dramatic , (through the self-revelation in the characters' words and tales) as well as descriptive. In The Prologue, we find the descriptive method at work. Universal, typical and individual at the same time, the characters of The Prologue develop into organic beings. Chaucer was a pioneer in the art of characterization in English literature. He uses insight and literary skill in his delineation of character. We need not trouble ourselves, as some critics have, with the question of whether the characters are transposition from real life; it is enough that they seem real. They are not photographs but pictures; each character is an imaginative transcript of different traits observed in different persons. In other words, Chaucer's characters are "composites". Above all, the character delineation is marked by humour.