Characterization, the art of revealing fictional characters’ natures and personalities, has many facets. 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? Read on for tips and examples from literature:
Defining direct and indirect characterization
‘Direct characterization’ means the character details authors explicitly describe. For example, telling the reader a character’s desires, life philosophy or current emotional state explicitly.
An example of direct characterization
Here’s an example of direct characterization from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927). Woolf explicitly shows what characters think of one another. For example, an artist staying with the Ramsay family, Lily Briscoe, thinks about a man Mr. Bankes who has called Mr Ramsay 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…’ (p. 52).
This is direct – Woolf describes Mr. Ramsay’s traits directly – his self-absorption and so forth.
In contrast to direct characterization, ‘indirect characterization’ shows readers your characters’ traits without explicitly describe them. What types of indirect characterization are there? Any writing that helps us infer or deduce things about a person’s personality. For example:
- Dialogue – (where a character’s bossy, kind, mean, or other qualities come through)
- Actions – what a character does (for example jumping on a beetle to squash it) reveals, incidentally, their character (in this case that a character is needlessly unkind or violent)
- Description – although associations differ from country to country, culture to culture, how a character looks often gives indirect characterization. We might assume, for example, a pale-skinned character is antisocial and hides away from the sun, like the recluse Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird
An example of indirect characterization
Here, John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath shows a character’s personality indirectly. He doesn’t say that hitchhiker Joad is a down-and-out, blue-collar worker. Instead, the indirect characterization uses the props a worker in the context would have – whiskey, cigarettes, calloused hands – to show Joad’s character.
‘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.’ (The Grapes of Wrath, p. 9)
So how do you use direct and indirect characterization well? Read tips for each:
Tips for using direct characterization
1. Don’t overdo it
Direct characterization is convenient. You can give readers information about your characters quickly, in a single phrase or sentence. For example, this direct character description of Mr Bounderby in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (1854):
‘So, Mr Bounderby threw on his hat – he always threw it on, as expressing a man who had been far too busily employed in making himself, to acquire any fashion of wearing his hat.’ (p. 26)
In Dickens’ novel, wealthy Mr Bounderby constantly tells others about his impoverished background and what a self-made man he is. This direct characterization (his theatrically indifferent way of throwing on his hat) suggests his haste, his being ‘a busy man with important things to do’. Its thus fits his persona and backstory.
Keep direct characterization, as much as possible, to concise information relevant to your story. Blend direct and indirect characterization to develop your characters. Too much explicit telling about your characters’ personalities, at the cost of showing, could make them feel like bland collections of abstract nouns without specificity. For example, here is bad direct characterization:
‘He was a hopeless man, a mix of dejected self-pity and self-loathing, fear being the main cause of his state.’
This doesn’t give us specifics: How does he look, because of these qualities? What is it this man fears?
2. Use direct characterization for key character details
When introducing characters for the first time particularly, use direct characterization to give readers essential details. It’s easier to remember simply states facts, e.g. ‘She was a kind woman.’ Consider, for example, our first introduction to the character named ‘Mother’s Younger Brother’ (we’ll abbreviate ‘MYB’) in E.L. Doctorow’s classic novel Ragtime (1975):
‘Down at the bottom of the hill Mother’s Younger Brother boarded the streetcar and rode to the end of the line. He was a lonely, withdrawn young man with blond moustaches, and was thought to be having difficulty finding himself.’ (p. 4)
Doctorow uses direct characterization to show MYB’s melancholic nature. As we read on, we learn MYB is in love with a famous chorus girl, Evelyn Nesbit. Doctorow passes into indirect characterization, describing the posters of Evelyn on the wall in MYB’s bedroom and his stalking of her to illustrate the extent of his obsessive nature.
This movement – from simple, direct characterization to broader character details given indirectly – creates a sense of character development. The direct characterization – MYB’s loneliness – is also relevant to his broader arc. Because he eventually has a brief (but unsatisfying fling) with Evelyn.
3. Introduce characters with direct characterization relevant to arcs
Effective direct characterization helps us picture characters’ appearances and know their primary goals, drives, and motivations. Some physical description is important, especially on first introduction. Yet the best physical description often tells us something about the character’s personality, too. And even links to their story arc, as MYB’s ‘lonely’ nature in Ragtime does.
Take another description from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath:
‘He was not over thirty. His eyes were very dark brown and there was a hint of brown pigment in his eyeballs. His cheek-bones were high and wide, and strong deep lines cut down his cheeks, in curves besides his mouth […] His hands were hard, with broad fingers and nails as thick and ridges as little clam shells. The space between thumb and forefinger and the hams of his hands were shiny with callus.’ (p. 3)
The description of Tom Joad is fitting. We see how lined his face is for a man entering his thirties, and the calluses on his fingers attest to a life of hard work. His aged appearance makes more sense when we later discover Tom’s just been released from prison.
4. Focus on the unique and specific
Often, as beginning authors, we write character descriptions that end at ‘she had blue eyes and long brown hair’. Yet eye and hair colour doesn’t tell us what this specific character has that nobody else does. Instead, focus on specifics. For example, read how Margaret Atwood describes childhood friends (or ‘frenemies’) in her novel Cat’s Eye (1988). The protagonist Elaine is remembering her youth through a flashback, in the present tense:
‘We wear long wool coats with tie belts, the collars turned up to look like those of movie stars, and rubber boots with the tops folded down and men’s work socks inside.’ (p. 4)
This small bit of direct clothing description shows us preteen girls who are discovering their independence. Atwood uses these specific details to convey a strong sense of this age, as the girls become more independent and try appear more ‘grown up.’ These details make the characters’ age believable.
To write good direct characterization, describe details such as:
- Clothing – what does it say about your character? Is their clothing sober, funky, revealing?
- Identity – does your character identify with a particular subculture (e.g. Punk)? What does this say about them?
- Personality – is your character mainly cheerful, sarcastic, melancholic? There’s no harm in the occasional abstract noun. Just make sure to show this quality through events, dialogue and other indirect means too
Tips for using indirect characterization
1. Use dialogue for indirect characterization
Great dialogue tells readers a lot about your characters. Its a useful tool for creating subtle yet revealing indirect characterization. It’s truly worth reading good play scripts for this reason, given that stage works are primarily dialogue based. Consider, for example, this exchange in A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) by Tennessee Williams:
Hey, there! Stella, Baby!
[Stella comes out on the first floor landing, a gentle
young woman, about twenty-five, and of a background
obviously quite different from her husband’s.]
Don’t holler at me like that. Hi, Mitch.
[He heaves the package at her. She cries out in protest
but manages to catch it: then she laughs breathlessly.
Her husband and his companion have already started
back around the corner.]
Stella [calling after him] :
Stanley! Where are you going?
Williams does not need to tell us that Stanley is not a big talker and is a rough type. Indirect characterization here does that for him.
This first exchange between Stanley and Stella shows (in his short, barked answers) that he is a man of few words and some aggression. The fact Stella engages in pleasantries with Stanley’s friend (‘Hi, Mitch’) creates stark contrast to Stanley’s limited focus: Meat and going bowling. Even though the stage direction says the characters should appear from different backgrounds, the indirect characterization in Williams’ dialogue already shows us how starkly different they are.
2. Use characters’ actions to describe their personalities indirectly
Although Tennessee Williams could have a narrator at the start of his play saying ‘Stanley is an aggressive male chauvinist’, it would be odd. It would also pre-determine how we read him. Half the joy of reading is discovering the characters. There’s more excitement and intrigue in learning about characters by degrees.
In Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), the character Janie’s grandmother, Nanny, is eager for her to marry a wealthy man Logan Killicks. Through small actions, Hurston shows first Janie’s uncertainty about marrying a man she barely knows, and then her discovery that ‘marriage did not make love’ that we’re told directly at the end of the chapter. Before this realization, we see small signs through indirect characterization. For example, when she goes to visit Nanny after getting married:
‘Janie didn’t go in where Mrs Washburn was. She didn’t say anything to match up with Nanny’s gladness either. She just fell on a chair with her hips and sat there.’ (p. 29)
This passive ‘just sitting there’ suggests Janie’s despondent feelings. A build up of images of waiting and stasis describe Janie indirectly. They reveal her gradual realization that she doesn’t love Killicks. Here, indirect characterization details build up to a major character development. The characterization explains the approaching change in Janie’s path.
3. Use indirect characterization to show consequences
One way of thinking of direct characterization vs indirect characterization is to think of cause and effect. For example, the direct characterization of Mother’s Younger Brother in Ragtime (he is ‘lonely’) leads to the longer arc of his actions (stalking a famous chorus girl).
Similarly, when we first meet the fraudulent Mr. Bounderby in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, Dickens shows as directly how exaggerated everything Bounderby says and does is. Through indirect characterization, through Bounderby’s accumulated words and actions, we understand the the reasons underlying his pompous behaviour.
4. Use emotive language to characterize viewpoint characters indirectly
Everything from character dialogue and actions to the words you choose to describe settings can deepen characterization. For example, two different characters could describe the same setting completely differently. The way each describes this setting would reveal key differences about them.
For example, imagine two siblings, John and Sarah, decide to investigate a mysterious abandoned house on their street.
John is afraid. He believes in supernatural forces. he sees the house as ominous and mysterious:
‘As I approach the house I see a shadow move quickly across an upstairs window. I dash back to the gate and look up, squinting into the glare. All I see is the reflection of the sinewy oak in a corner of the weedy, unkempt garden.’
The fact John is checking the windows for movement, the fact he dashes back to the gate – these indirect characterization details show that eerie goings on are on his mind. They reveal he has a fearful nature, without explicitly saying so. Compare to Sarah’s visit:
‘It doesn’t look haunted to me. People say you can see figures moving about upstairs when dusk arrives, but any idiot can see it’s just the reflection of the oak tree in the garden, if there’s a breeze.’
Sarah’s observations show us the character isn’t at the mercy of her imagination like John. We get a sense of an independent character who won’t be swayed by popular opinion (‘people say’). The terse ‘any idiot’ indirectly shows Sarah’s character. She comes across as matter-of-fact, and maybe even a little closed-minded and judgmental.
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