Writing

Writing 101: Guide to Direct Characterization and Indirect Characterization

Written by MasterClass

Jan 31, 2019 • 7 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.. In order to bring characters to life, writers employ a tool called characterization. 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 plot forward.

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What Is Characterization?

Characterization is the description of a character’s physical traits, personality, and passions. 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 likeable, but they must be interesting.

What Is Direct Characterization?

Direct characterization, or explicit characterization, is a method of describing the character in a straightforward manner: through their physical description (i.e. blue eyes), their line of work (i.e. lawyer), and their passions and outside pursuits (i.e. voracious reader).

Direct characterization is one of the most useful and common literary devices, however when done incorrectly (or not at all), the result is a flat character.

Famous Examples of Direct Characterization

There are certain characters who have entered the literary zeitgeist thanks to direct characterization. The following examples illustrate the power of direct characterization in conveying the essence of a character:

Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

“Occupied in observing Mr. Bingley’s attentions to her sister, Elizabeth was far from suspecting that she was herself becoming an object of some interest in the eyes of his friend. Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty: he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness. Of this she was perfectly unaware: to her he was only the man who made himself agreeable nowhere, and who had not thought her handsome enough to dance with.”

Austen uses direct characterization in this passage to describe Elizabeth through the eyes of Mr. Darcy, who has tried hard to view her as undesirable but cannot resist her unique beauty.

Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.

“She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials. But better than joy was calm. Imperturbability could be depended upon. And from her great and humble position in the family she had taken dignity and a clean calm beauty. From her position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet; from her position as arbiter she had become as remote and faultless in judgment as a goddess. She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone.”

Steinbeck describes one of the novel’s primary characters, Ma Joad, as the emotional foundation of the family. The reader can almost feel the hardship that she has endured through the image of a woman who is unwavering in her fortitude to persevere.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Direct Characterization?

Direct characterization is useful for the following:

  • Introducing characters. Entering the world of a new novel can be like charting unfamiliar territory; direct characterization provides readers with concrete imagery as they get to know the characters you’ve created.
  • Revealing a character’s motivations. Especially early on in a narrative, it is useful to clearly articulate details of characterization so that the reader can connect with your characters and root them on as they reach for their goals (or sympathize with them if they face tragedy).
  • Providing the reader with memorable character traits. When creating important characters that the reader is going to meet more than once, be sure that they’re memorable in some way. Try to give each one a quality that can be used later to help readers recall who they are. This could be a title like “chief of police” or a physical attribute like “ginger-haired.”

However, when overused, direct characterization can leave a reader feeling as though the writer is telling them everything they need to know rather than enjoying the thrill of discovery themselves. To prevent this, balance your prose with both direct and indirect characterization.

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.

Famous Examples of Indirect Characterization

Though less obvious than direct characterization, indirect characterization is an equally useful tool in illustrating a character. Oftentimes, what’s left unsaid or unstated creates an even more powerful image in the reader’s mind.

Anne in Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery.

“My life is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes.”

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.

Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

“Because I could never ask you to mind me again. 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. Try fighting with your head for a change … it’s a good one, even if it does resist learning.”

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.

What Are the Pros and Cons 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.

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, since readers bring different backgrounds and experiences to their interpretation for your text. But if you lean on indirect characterization for major plot points and the reader misses your clues, the gap in understanding may lead to an unsatisfying reading experience.