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Writing

Direct Characterization: Definition, Examples, and Direct vs. Indirect Characterization

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 5 min read

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The great works of literature derive their greatness from three components: language, story, and character. Language refers to the mastery and manipulation of a particular lexicon. Think of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or James Joyce’s Ulysses. Story, meanwhile, refers to the plot that seizes the reader’s interest and keeps them engaged. Think of William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice or Stephen King’s It.

Finally, character refers to an author’s ability to create deep, dynamic figures who resonate with readers in both familiar and unfamiliar ways. Character is revealed via story and language, but characterization itself is a key skill mastered by the most accomplished of authors.

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What Is Characterization?

Characterization is the description of:

  • A character’s physical traits (how a character looks)
  • A character’s personality
  • A character’s thoughts
  • A character’s actions

There are two types of characterization in fiction writing:

  1. Indirect characterization
  2. 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 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 in Literature

There are certain characters who have entered the literary zeitgeist thanks to direct characterization. The following examples of direct characterization illustrate the power of this literary device to convey 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.” 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.” 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.
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What Are the Advantages 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.”

What Is the Difference Between Direct Characterization and Indirect Characterization?

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

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

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.

Learn more about indirect characterization here.

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3 Tips for Using Direct Characterization

Here are some tried and true ways to use direct characterization in your own writing.

  1. Interrupt the action. If a significant character enters in the middle of a scene, interrupt the action and don’t let it proceed until you’ve sufficiently described this new character. That will signal to your readers that this is someone worth paying attention to.
  2. Use figurative language. Direct characterization stands out when it paints images in the reader’s mind. Instead of writing “Michael was very tall,” write: “Michael was a sequoia in a forest of dogwoods.”
  3. Describe your characters in relation to one another. This will help give your audience perspective about the extremes (or lack thereof) in differences between characters. For instance: “If Shirley was fire, Regina was rain. She always had a way of soothing the rage that could sometimes burn Shirley up inside.”

Want to Become a Better Writer?

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In 24 lessons, Judy Blume will show you how to develop vibrant characters and hook your readers.

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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.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass Annual Membership provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Judy Blume, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, David Baldacci, and more.

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