Characterization, the art of breathing life into a fictional character, has many facets. We can separate this aspect of craft into direct characterization and indirect characterization. What are these two types of characterization, and what are the strengths and weaknesses of each? Read on for tips and examples from literature:
Defining direct and indirect characterization
‘Direct characterization’ describes the character details authors explicitly describe. For example, telling the reader a character’s appearance, life philosophy or current emotional state. A subtler form of characterization, ‘indirect characterization’ shows readers your characters’ traits indirectly, using dialogue, actions, viewpoint characters’ word choice and other non-explicit details.
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 having 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).
Woolf explicitly describes, via Lily, Mr Ramsay’s positive and negative attributes. On the following page, Woolf uses Lily’s thoughts about the Ramsay’s for indirect characterization. With Lily still as viewpoint character, the narration shows (but does not explicitly tell us) Lily’s (sometimes) idealistic view of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay:
‘The sky stuck to them; the birds sang through them. And, what was even more exciting, she felt, too, as she saw Mr. Ramsay bearing down and retreating, and Mrs. Ramsay sitting with James in the window and the cloud moving and the tree bending, how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole…’ (p. 53)
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, the wealthy Bounderby constantly tells others about his impoverished background and what a self-made man he is. This detail of direct characterization (his theatrically indifferent way of throwing on his hat, as if to say ‘I’m too busy being successful to worry about my appearance’) is thus fitting.
Direct characterization ideally is economical. 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 hollow caricatures.
Use the longer arcs of characters’ stories to reveal personality. In this novel, for example, Dickens ultimately reveals Mr Bounderby is a liar and fraud and that this has played a big part in his acquiring wealth. The exaggerated way Mr Bounderby conducts himself throughout the novel fits the ultimate reveal that he is a fake.
2. Give readers the most important and significant character details directly
When introducing character’s for the first time particularly, use direct characterization to give readers essential details. Consider, for example, our first introduction to the character named ‘Mother’s Younger Brother’ (henceforth abbreviated ‘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)
The characterization of MYB’s melancholic nature is direct. Doctorow proceeds to flesh out his portrait, painting in character detail, as 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 relevant to his broader arc, as he eventually has a brief but unsatisfying fling with Nesbit.
3. Introduce characters with direct characterization relevant to their story arcs
As Doctorow’s example above shows, effective direct characterization helps us picture characters’ appearances and know their primary goals, drives, 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 this direct description from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939):
‘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, in amateur writing, we read 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 and dressing up like movie stars. 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?
- Default emotional state – is your character mainly cheerful, sarcastic, melancholic? If you state this explicitly using direct characterization, make sure to show incidents and dialogue throughout your story that reveal why
Tips for using indirect characterization
1. Use dialogue for illuminating indirect characterization
Great dialogue tells readers a lot about your characters. 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 using direct characterization that Stanley is not a big talker and is a rough type. This first exchange between he 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 the two characters are.
2. Use characters’ repeated 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, through not only description but dialogue and action, too.
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 state of disappointment and confusion. A build up of images of waiting and stasis describing Janie indirectly reveal her gradual realization that she doesn’t love Killicks and she leaves him. Here, indirect characterization details build up to a major character development.
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 described as ‘lonely’) leads to the longer arc of his actions (stalking a famous chorus girl). The direct characterization tells us about his loneliness, and the indirect characterization reveals the extent of this loneliness and the actions that result.
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. It’s only through indirect characterization, through Bounderby’s accumulated words and actions, that we understand the causes of his pompous behaviour and grandstanding, and the consequences too.
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 the reader’s impression of your character. For example, two different characters could describe the same setting completely differently. Their act of describing could tell us important details of their personalities.
For example, imagine hypothetical siblings John and Sarah independently 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, unkept 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 quite 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 – brusque, matter-of-fact, and maybe even a little closed-minded and judgmental.
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