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Direct vs indirect characterization: How to show and tell

There are two main ways to reveal characters: direct characterization, and indirect characterization. What defines these two characterization types, and what are the strengths and weaknesses of each?

Characterization describes the way a writer or actor creates or implies a character’s personality, their inner life and psyche. Two main ways to reveal your characters are direct characterization and indirect characterization. What are these character creation techniques? Read on for examples of characterization that illustrate both:

Guide to direct and indirect characterization: Contents

  1. What is direct characterization?
  2. Direct characterization example
  3. What is indirect characterization?
  4. Indirect characterization example
  5. Eight tips for using direct vs indirect characterization

Let’s delve into using both characterization devices:

What is direct characterization?

To begin with a definition of direct characterization, this means the author explicitly tells the reader a character’s personality.

For example, explicitly telling the reader a character is kind, funny, eccentric, and so forth.

Direct characterization example

Here’s an example of direct characterization from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1925).

Woolf explicitly shows what characters think of one another. In the example, an artist staying with the Ramsay family, Lily Briscoe, thinks about Mr Ramsay whom a man Mr Bankes has just called a hypocrite:

Looking up, there he was – Mr. Ramsay – advancing towards them, swinging, careless, oblivious, remote. A bit of a hypocrite? she repeated. Oh no – the most sincere of men, the truest (here he was), the best; but, looking down, she thought, he is absorbed in himself, he is tyrannical, he is unjust…

Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse (1927), p. 52.

This is direct characterization – through Lily, Woolf describes Mr. Ramsay’s traits directly.

It’s telling (direct characterization typically is), but because we read it as one character’s opinion of another, it also shows us how Lily feels, whether or not she agrees with the statement that Mr. Ramsay is a hypocrite.

Through Lily, we learn Ramsay is ‘absorbed in himself’ or self-absorbed, tyrannical – we read direct statements about Ramsay’s personality that help us picture him and how he comes across to others.

What is indirect characterization?

‘Indirect characterization’ shows readers your characters’ traits without explicitly describing them.

To give simpler examples of direct vs indirect characterization, for direct you might write, ‘Jessica was a goofy, eccentric teacher’.

For indirect revelation of Jessica’s character, you might write instead, ‘Jessica had named the stick with a hook on the end she used to open the classroom’s high windows Belinda and would regale her children with stories of Belinda’s adventures (even though they were fourteen, not four)’.

In the second example of characterization above (the indirect kind), it is inferred that Jessica is goofy and eccentric. She names inanimate objects and tells teenagers stories of make-believe that would probably be better-suited to younger children.

Indirect characterization invites your reader to deduce things about your characters, without explicitly telling them who they are.

Indirect characterization example

Here, John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath (1939) shows a character’s personality indirectly.

Steinbeck doesn’t say that hitchhiker Joad is a down-and-out, blue-collar worker. Instead, the author creates indirect characterization through the items a worker in this context would perhaps have: whiskey, cigarettes, calloused hands:

Joad took a quick drink from the flask. He dragged the last smoke from his raveling cigarette and then, with callused thumb and forefinger, crushed out the glowing end. He rubbed the butt to a pulp and put it out the window, letting the breeze suck it from his fingers.

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), p. 9.
Direct and indirect characterization definitions infographic

Types of indirect characterization

What types of indirect characterization are there?

Any writing that helps us infer or deduce things about a person’s psyche, emotions, values or mannerisms. For example:

  1. Dialogue-based inference: From the way your character speaks to others in the story, your reader may deduce that they are kind, cruel, gentle, etc.
  2. Implying through action: What your character does (for example jumping on a beetle to squash it) implies their character (in this case, it may imply that a character is cruel).
  3. Fly-on-wall description: Although what visual description implies may differ from country to country, culture to culture, neutrally-worded description may cause your reader to make specific assumptions based on what you’ve shown. We might assume, for example, an extremely pale-skinned character is reclusive or agoraphobic, like the reclusive Boo Radley in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

So how do you use direct and indirect characterization well? Read tips for each:

8 tips for using direct and indirect characterization

  1. Avoid overusing direct characterization
  2. Be direct with key details
  3. Support direct character statements with scenes
  4. Imply character through action and reaction
  5. Tell direct details that serve concision
  6. Use dialogue to characterize indirectly
  7. Let narrative voice give character
  8. Read examples of direct and indirect characterization

Avoid overusing direct characterization

Direct characterization is useful shorthand. Instead of pages of a scene showing exactly how a character is mean, you could start with ‘He was mean.’

This is where balance is key, and overusing direct character revelation is wise to avoid.

If, for example, you wrote, ‘He was mean. He was petty and generally unkind, so that neighbors crossed the street when he passed,’ that mixes some indirect characterization with the direct type. Neighbors crossing the street is a visual that indirectly implies avoidance and discomfort or possible dislike.

If you were to only tell readers about your characters’ traits without weaving in illustrative showing (which give indirect inference about who your characters are), the effect would be:

  1. Hazy visuals: Crossing the street in the example above gives a more specific visual than simply saying ‘he was disliked by the community’.
  2. Lack of depth and color: If you tell your reader who your characters are exclusively with minimal showing or inferring, it may read as though you have a private understanding of your characters you are summarizing for the reader, rather than showing them a fuller, more detailed picture.

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Example of blending direct and indirect character detail

The opening of Toni Morrison’s powerful novel Beloved characterizes a house that is haunted by the ghost of an infant.

Note how Morrison moves from the direct characterization of the first sentence to specific, visual details:

124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old – as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard).

Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987), p. 17.

Be direct with key details

The trick to effective direct characterization is to reserve it for key details you want to establish upfront.

In the example of blending indirect and direct character description above, Morrison starts with direct, broad detail. A sense of spite that drives boys in the family from a home filled with the ghosts of a corrosive, violent history.

If you were to write a retelling of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol you might start with ‘Scrooge was stingy’ and then similar flesh this key detail out with the illustrative, supporting detail.

The indirect characterization you then add on to key details gives further texture, color, specificity to your characters. It helps, of course, to know your characters inside out:

Support direct character statements with scenes

The example above from Beloved shows how indirect characterization supports direct descriptive statements.

The boys Howard and Buglar fleeing from mirrors that seem to shatter by themselves or tiny hand prints appearing in a cake, for example. These specific images and incidents support the suggestion that the home at 124 is haunted by a ‘spiteful’ (or rather, determined-to-be-known) presence.

If you tell your reader a character is kind, think of dedicated scenes as well as passing moments that support the direct revelation.

Maybe your character gives up a seat on public transport for an elderly person. Maybe they help a neighbor get a pet that has run out of an open gate into a busy road to safety.

Indirect characterization is useful because it shows your reader the type of actions your character is likely to take.

This in turn enables your reader to make educated, qualified guesses about how your characters’ might react in situations whose outcome is not yet known. Through this, one ‘gets to know’ characters as though they were real people.

Direct vs indirect characterization infographic

Imply character through action and reaction

Action and reaction provide useful ways to tell your reader who your characters are indirectly.

For example, Sarah has a vase that belonged to her grandmother that she cherishes, and her hyperactive son knocks it over and breaks it. Does she scold him to be careful? Lash out? Show a mix of anger and understanding?

Think about what you want your reader to infer about a character from the way they react, even in incidents or situations that are trivial or secondary to your story’s main plotline.

In this way every scene, every incident, will contribute toward building your characters’ personae.

Tell direct details that serve concision

One of the benefits of direct characterization is that it allows you to be concise.

Direct characterization is useful, for example, when a narrator is recapping prior events that are useful to the present story but not its main focus. For example, in the first page of Nick Hornby’s Slam, a novel about a sixteen-year-old skater named Sam:

So things were ticking along quite nicely. In fact, I’d say that good stuff had been happening pretty solidly for about six months.
– For example: Mum got rid of Steve, her rubbish boyfriend.
– For example: Mrs Gillet, my art and design teacher, took me to one side after a lesson and asked whether I’d thought of doing art at college.

Nick Hornby, Slam (2007), p. 1

At this point in the story, the reader doesn’t need lengthy exposition about why Steve was a rubbish boyfriend. So the direct, telling characterization suits the purpose of this part of the story – catching the reader up on what has been happening in the teenaged protagonist’s life.

There is still balance between indirect and direct characterization in this example. The second example Sam gives tells us (through Mrs Gillet’s action) that the teacher is caring and sees artistic potential in Sam, without saying so explicitly. The part or unique incident suggests the whole of the teacher-student relationship.

Use dialogue to characterize indirectly

Dialogue is a fantastic device for characterization because it may move the story forward while also telling your reader who characters are.

If, for example, there is banter and characters tease each other, it may imply an ease and familiarity (compared to stiff formality between strangers).

Note, for example, how Hornby creates a sense of how awkward Rabbit is (an 18-year-old skater at Grind City, a skate park Sam frequents) in the dialogue below:

‘Yo, Sam,’ he said.
Did I tell you that my name is sam? Well, now you know.
‘All right?’
‘How’s it going, man?’
‘OK.’
‘Right. Hey, Sam. I know what I was gonna ask you. You know your mum?’
See what I mean about Rabbit being thick? Yes, I told him. I knew my mum.

Hornby, pp. 11-12.

In this brief exchange, we see through the awkward, stop-start flow of conversation how Rabbit lacks social graces and awareness and (in the ensuing dialogue) reveals he has a crush on Sam’s mother.

Let narrative voice give character

Another useful way to use indirect characterization is to give an involved narrator (a narrator who is also a character in the story) a personality-filled voice.

In the above example of characterization via dialogue, for example, Sam’s asides to the reader (‘Well, now you know’ and ‘See what I mean about Rabbit being thick?’) create the sense of a streetwise, slightly jaded teenaged voice.

Think of ways to inject characters’ personalities into their narration. What subjects do they obsess over (it’s clear Sam loves skating from the first few pages of Slam)? How do they see others (Sam appears fairly dismissive and a little cocky, from referring to his mom’s ‘rubbish’ boyfriend to his blunt description of Rabbit as ‘thick’).

Use language in narration your character would use based on demographic details such as age, cultural background or class identity.

The casual, clipped language Sam uses in the example above suggests the awkward and ‘too cool’ qualities of a teenaged boy.

Read examples of direct and indirect characterization

To really understand the uses of direct and indirect characterization (and how to blend to two to show and tell, describe and imply), look for examples in books.

You could even write out the descriptions you love, to create your own guide to dip into whenever you’re creating characters.

Create believable, developed characters. Finishing a book is easier with structured tools and encouraging support.

By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

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