Writing 101: Guide to Direct Characterization and Indirect Characterization

Written by MasterClass

Jan 31, 2019 • 4 min read

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Part of your job as a writer is to learn about your characters by observing how they interact with the world around them. Sometimes, writers use a literary tool called characterization to bring characters to life. Characterization is an essential part of writing a novel or short story; it helps you understand your characters, and how each character’s personality and perspectives can help drive the plot forward.




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What Is Characterization?

Characterization is the description of a character’s physical traits (how a character looks), point of view, personality, private thoughts, and actions. There are two types of characterization in fiction writing:

  • Indirect characterization
  • Direct characterization

Both indirect characterization and direct characterization work together to create a complete picture of your character for the reader. Remember that characters, like people, are imperfect. They don’t need to be likable, but they must be interesting.

What Is Indirect Characterization?

Indirect characterization is the process of describing a character through that character’s thoughts, actions, speech, and dialogue. An author will use this type of characterization to guide the reader in making their own conclusions about a character.

2 Examples of Indirect Characterization in Literature

Indirect characterization is a useful tool in illustrating a character. Often, what’s left unsaid or unstated creates an even more powerful image in the reader’s mind.

  1. Anne in Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. “My life is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes.” Here, Montgomery created a character who has a complex and active imagination, is extremely curious and awestruck by the world around her, and who also has a very dark past with residual emotional trauma coming to the forefront.
  2. Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. “Scout, simply by the nature of the work, every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one’s mine, I guess. You might hear some ugly talk about it at school, but do one thing for me if you will: you just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ’em get your goat.” In this excerpt, Atticus is speaking to Scout about an upcoming, controversial trial. The reader can infer that from this interaction that Atticus is trying to instill in Scout the sense that a person should always continue to fight for what they believe, regardless of the consequences. This passage illuminates Atticus’s strong moral compass, and the morals he hopes to instill in his children.
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What Are the Advantages of Indirect Characterization?

Adding indirect characterization to your writing is a powerful way to convey those unspoken thoughts and traits that convey the true essence of a person. But you have to take care to guide your reader’s experience, less they miss important clues that you drop via indirect characterization.

  • Indirect characterization humanizes a character. By revealing a character’s thoughts, emotions, and world view in various contexts, you provide your reader with a robust understanding of who your characters are.
  • Indirect characterization strengthens your writing by showing, not telling. For example, you could write your character was “rude,” or show your character blowing cigarette smoke in another character’s face. Both convey the same message, however, the first method of direct characterization is much less subtle than the second method of indirect characterization.
  • Indirect characterization inspires discovery and provokes the imagination. As a writer, you are leading your reader through your story. By weaving indirect characterization through your narrative, you provide the reader with the opportunity to draw their own conclusions and make their own discoveries, for an overall more satisfying and intriguing reading experience.


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What Is the Difference Between Indirect Characterization and Direct Characterization?

Knowing the difference between indirect characterization and direct characterization can help you determine which one is better suited to your work.

  • Indirect characterization describes a character through their thoughts, actions, speech, and dialogue.
  • Direct characterization, or explicit characterization, describes the character through their physical description, line of work, or passions and pursuits.

Though readers will always draw their own conclusions, they may draw conclusions far from your intent if you don’t offer enough clues through detail work. This is not necessarily always a drawback—readers bring different backgrounds and experiences to their interpretation of your text. But if you lean too heavily on indirect characterization for major plot points and the reader misses your clues, the gap in understanding may lead to an unsatisfying reading experience.

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Whether you’re creating a story as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, learning how to correctly use literary devices is essential to good writing. Award-winning author Judy Blume has spent decades honing her craft. In Judy Blume’s MasterClass on writing, she provides insight into how to invent vivid characters, write realistic dialogue, and turn your experiences into stories people will treasure.

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