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- What Is Characterization?
- What Is Direct Characterization?
- Famous Examples of Direct Characterization in Literature
- What Are the Advantages of Direct Characterization?
- What Is the Difference Between Direct Characterization and Indirect Characterization?
- 3 Tips for Using Direct Characterization
- Want to Become a Better Writer?
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:
- 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 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.
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.
3 Tips for Using Direct Characterization
Here are some tried and true ways to use direct characterization in your own writing.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.”
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