In stories and movies, made-up people, like in books or films, act like real folks with their own personalities. When you write, you share these traits with readers in two ways: by directly saying what a character is like or by showing it in how they act, talk, and think. The second way, called indirect characterization, is trickier but can make your writing more interesting.
Direct characterization is simple – just tell the reader about the character’s qualities. On the other hand, indirect characterization is a bit fancier. Instead of directly stating a trait, you reveal it through what the character does, says, and thinks. It’s like a puzzle where the reader figures out the character’s traits on their own.
Understanding indirect characterization can be a bit tricky at first, but it adds depth to your writing. The definition below explains the difference between direct and indirect characterization. Plus, it gives examples and tips on how to use this technique in your own writing.
What is Indirect Characterization?
When you write a movie, a short story, or a book, you make up characters – some are good, and some are bad. It’s important to show these characters by talking about how they look, what they think, how they act, and what they say inside their heads. These things help readers understand and either like or not like these characters. This showing of characters is called characterization, and there are two types:
- Direct characterization: This is when you just say things about the character. Like, “He was not well-liked, for he was a highly immoral man.”
- Indirect characterization: This is when you show things the character does and let readers figure it out. For example, “Every morning as he walked around the block, people skirted his path, for he was in the habit of muttering under his breath and staring passersby in the eye.”
The second example doesn’t say the person is unlikeable; it shows the person doing unlikeable things. Indirect characterization is sneakier and more interesting. Even if the reader doesn’t like the character, they might be curious to know more.
Indirect characterization works by giving hints. As a writer, you describe how a character looks, what they think, or what they do, and the reader figures out what kind of person they are. For instance:
- The character kicks a dog: The reader might think this person is mean, bad, or evil.
- The character saves a cat: The reader might think this person is kind, good-hearted, or heroic.
In both cases, the writing doesn’t directly tell the reader about the character. Instead, it makes the reader guess by showing the character’s actions and what we think about those actions. This is how indirect characterization helps to tell a story without giving away too much.
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Direct and Indirect Characterization in Simple Terms
Direct and indirect characterization are two different ways writers reveal information about characters in a story. Direct characterization involves straightforward statements made by the writer about a character’s thoughts, feelings, or motivations. This approach may feel like the writer is directly talking to the reader. In contrast, indirect characterization relies on the reader’s inferences drawn from a character’s actions, thoughts, appearance, speech, and interactions with others.
Most writers use a combination of both direct and indirect characterization for various effects. Direct characterization explicitly tells the reader about a character, such as through a narrator, another character, or the characters themselves. For example, stating, “She was good-looking, with long, blond, flowing hair” is a form of direct characterization.
On the other hand, indirect characterization involves showing rather than telling. The reader forms impressions of a character through their behaviour, thoughts, physical appearance, speech, and interactions. An illustration of indirect characterization could be understanding a character’s nature by observing their actions, like saving a cat or kicking a dog. Both methods contribute to creating well-rounded and engaging characters in a story.
Examples of Indirect Characterisation in Writing
Authors use various techniques to reveal a character’s traits in a story. One common method is indirect characterization, where details about a character are subtly conveyed through speech, thoughts, actions, interactions, and physical descriptions. Below are examples that showcase how authors employ indirect characterization to bring characters to life.
1. Atticus in “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
In Harper Lee’s novel, Atticus shares insights with Scout about an upcoming trial, expressing his commitment to standing up for his beliefs. Through this dialogue, readers gain an understanding of Atticus’s moral compass, beliefs, and the values he wishes to impart. His words reflect his determination:
“Scout, every lawyer gets a case that affects him personally. This one’s mine. You might hear ugly talk, but hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says, don’t let ’em get your goat.”
2. Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens employs both direct and indirect characterization to paint a vivid picture of Scrooge. Through Scrooge’s actions, such as yelling at his nephew and mistreating others, Dickens indirectly reveals his stinginess and disdain for Christmas. Scrooge’s own words emphasize his aversion:
“A poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December!”
In a direct characterization, Dickens solidifies the negative perception:
“A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, secret, self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”
3. Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck employs indirect characterization to portray Joad as a rugged blue-collar worker. Details about Joad’s physical appearance, mannerisms, and habits, such as the smell of whiskey and tobacco, provide insights into his life and attitude. Steinbeck crafts an image of Joad through subtle descriptions:
“Joad took a quick drink from the flask. He dragged the last smoke from his ravelling cigarette and then, with calloused 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.”
How To Master Indirect Characterization in Writing
Using indirect characterization in your writing can be easily grasped with the “Show, Don’t Tell” approach. To recall the five types of indirect characterization demonstrated in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, remember the acronym STEAL: Speech, a character’s Thoughts, their Effect on others, Actions, and Looks.
Direct characterization is straightforward and brief, like a quick summary. Think of it as a foundation that allows you to later add details through inferences. The less you directly characterize, the more impactful those instances become.
Relying solely on direct characterization results in flat characters, portraying individuals as purely good or bad. Real people, however, exist in shades of grey. Indirect characterization introduces this complexity. To steer clear of one-dimensional characters, maintain a character profile worksheet noting both physical and personality traits. Challenge yourself by placing characters in different scenarios and predicting their behaviour using this guide.
Indirect characterization is subtle, revealing character traits through specific actions, allowing readers to infer personalities. Through Speech, Thoughts, Effect, Actions, and Looks (STEAL), these instances create a detailed portrayal of characters in your narrative.
Characterization through Speech
In this section, we explore how characters in “The Great Gatsby” reveal their personalities through their words. Gatsby’s optimistic outlook, motivation, and determination shine through when he exclaims, “Can’t repeat the past? Why, of course you can!” This quote reflects his near-omnipotent illusion of grandeur.
Characterization through a Character’s Thoughts
A character’s thoughts offer an intimate insight into their inner world, sharing feelings, attitudes, opinions, and understanding. In the novel, Nick, the narrator, observes Gatsby’s behaviour and reflects, “He hadn’t once ceased looking at Daisy, and I think he revalued everything in his house according to the measure of response it drew from her well-loved eyes.” This mental commentary not only provides insight into Gatsby’s motivations but also humanizes him in Nick’s eyes.
Characterization through Interaction
Examining how characters perceive or interact with each other provides readers with the opportunity to agree or disagree based on their reasoning. Nick’s feelings of manipulation by Daisy create an effect of distrust, dislike, and emotional distancing, as he notes, “The instant her voice broke off ceasing to compel my attention, my belief, I felt the basic insincerity of what she had said.”
Characterization through Action
Actions often speak louder than words, and this type of characterization is highly effective. For instance, Gatsby’s nervousness and desire to impress Daisy are evident when “at two o’clock a greenhouse arrived from Gatsby’s, with innumerable receptacles to contain it.” The hyperbole of the “greenhouse” underscores the excessive efforts Gatsby makes to impress, revealing his anxious state.
Characterization through Looks
Physical descriptions can directly reveal a character’s traits, but indirect characterization suggests traits for readers to infer. The description of Tom in “The Great Gatsby” employs both approaches: “Two shining arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward.” This blend of direct and indirect characterization paints a vivid picture of Tom’s personality, emphasizing his physical dominance and arrogance.
What Are the Indirect Characterization Techniques?
Achieving a balance between direct and indirect characterization is crucial in writing. Utilize the following methods to skillfully portray your characters:
- Be Straightforward Initially: Provide direct information about important character traits early on. Later, unfold and elaborate on these details indirectly.
- Let the Story Unfold: Incorporate indirect examples of character traits that seamlessly fit into the narrative. Avoid forced flashbacks and instead reveal your character’s personality gradually as the plot unfolds.
- Action and Reaction: Regardless of their role—villain, hero, or secondary character—each character has their own motivations in every scene. Allow readers to infer their emotions, thoughts, and attitudes through their actions and reactions.
- Direct Characterization’s Purpose: Utilize direct characterization sparingly for concise recaps, reminders, or to enhance the narrative voice. Keep it impactful and purposeful.
- Narrative Voice Influence: Infuse the narrator’s personality into the storytelling. Whether an active participant or an observer, let the narrative voice contribute to characterizing the personas.
- Effective Dialogue: Leverage character interactions through dialogue as an effective means of conveying information, including key character details.