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Direct Characterization: Definition and Examples

direct characetrization


Our connection to characters creates stories we love, and we can create loveable characters through direct vs indirect characterization.

Characters’ actions create the plot.

Their reactions bring the setting to life.

The writer’s description of a character’s physical traits, personality, thoughts, and actions shapes our impressions and understanding of the individuals in the story.

Characterization forges the links between readers and characters.

But that begs the question, what is direct vs indirect characterization?

What Is Characterization in Literature?

Characterization can be direct or indirect. At its most basic, direct characterization tells while indirect characterization implies or shows. Writers are often told to show rather than tell. However, strong connections are built through the weaving of both direct and indirect characterization.

Looking for a literary device to put you in control of how your readers understand your characters? Direct characterization can offer that!

Is this a moment where letting the reader form their own opinion will draw them in and set them up to reflect on their own assumptions? Indirect characterization allows this!

Full, engaging characters are drawn using both direct and indirect characterization. Understanding:

  • What these devices are,
  • How they impact the reader, and;
  • Where and why they are effective

Will help you choose when to employ these devices to reveal who.

Characterization Definition

Characterization is the creation of a fictional character in a film, play, poem, or book. The character can be a human, an alien, an animal, or even an object. Characterization includes descriptions of a character’s personality and physical attributes.


direct vs indirect characterisation

What Is Direct Characterization?

Direct characterization helps the reader imagine the character through explicit telling.

L. M. Montgomery begins her initial description of Anne of Green Gables with some specific details:

“Beneath the hat, extending down her back, were two braids of very thick, decidedly red hair. Her face was small, white and thin, also much freckled.”
—L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

Anne’s red hair and freckles are specific, essential details that help the reader with a clear picture and integrate aspects that Anne herself will focus on throughout the stories.

When these details are essential to the plot, the writer builds the reader’s trust. This integration shows the writer has crafted even the smallest details of the story to guide the reader’s experience.

Physical traits, like Anne’s red hair, or a job, like fire chief, are quick ways for the reader to identify the character.

While concise and clear, direct characterization can be creative. Figurative language, like metaphor, could paint an image. Comparison could give information about both characters. You might even combine these!

Jo was a rock, solid and dependable. Sam was a river, flowing fast and gliding around Jo’s resistance.

In the great direct vs indirect characterization debate, direct characterization puts the writer in control.

What Is Indirect Characterization?

Indirect characterization humanizes the character through implicit showing.

Let’s return to Anne of Green Gables:

“Burst into tears she did. Sitting down on a chair by the table, flinging her arms out upon it, and burying her face in them, she proceeded to cry stormily.”
—L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

direct vs indirect characterisation

Anne’s dramatic nature is clear in her reaction to the realization she will not get to stay at Green Gables. From this emotional response, the reader is shown Anne’s volatile temperament. Marilla’s and Matthew’s reactions foreshadow the relationships that will develop over the series.

An easy acronym to remember your options with indirect characterisation is STEAL.

Create the impression of the character through:

  • Speech: what they say, how they say it
  • Thoughts: beliefs, thoughts, values and motivations
  • Effect: relationships and how they treat others or are treated themselves
  • Actions: how they behave and react
  • Looks: physical appearance, including clothes and body language, and/or home and lifestyle, etc.

From something specific, whether an action, dialogue or thought, the reader infers a pattern. A character who deliberately squashes a fly may show a cruel streak. Indirect characterisation allows the reader to draw conclusions and make discoveries.

The subtlety of indirect characterization may lead to misinterpretation. Writers might use the ambiguity to surprise or challenge the readers.

Indirect characterization asks the reader to use their:

  • Imagination,
  • Logic, and;
  • Knowledge

To understand the character creating engagement. The characters seem more human as we learn about their thoughts and emotions.

In the great direct vs indirect characterization debate, indirect characterization gives the reader some control.

Direct Characterization Examples

Skilled writers weave a blend of direct and indirect characterisation to create a full tapestry of their characters.

Jane Austen puts this into practice during the first ball scene in Pride and Prejudice.

Notice how she weaves direct characterisation by describing Mr. Darcy’s, “Fine, tall person, handsome features,” and flows through to the reactions of others like the ladies who, “Declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley.”

By the end of the paragraph, Mr. Darcy is seen to be proud and, “Unworthy to be compared with his friend.” The delicate balance of showing and telling creates a strong sense of character within one paragraph:

“His friend Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report, which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year. The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.”
—Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (Chapter 3)

direct vs indirect characterisation

Tips for Writing Indirect vs Direct Characterization

Direct vs Indirect Characterization, Tip #1: Make Introductions

When a character enters the story, take time to craft the introduction. Help the reader create a clear image of the character by including details that are necessary for the plot. When editing, inspect each key character’s entrance.

Direct vs Indirect Characterization, Tip #2: Find Balance

Use direct to lead the reader through the key story elements and indirect to allow the reader to explore and develop personal connections.

Direct vs Indirect Characterization, Tip #3: Be Kind

Indirect characterisation may cause readers to miss essential clues within your story and feel betrayed or tricked. The reader’s trust in the author is part of the glue that holds them in the story.

Direct vs Indirect Characterization, Tip #4: Show Respect

The writer risks treating the reader as less intelligent through overuse of direct characterisation. Spelling everything out with broad, concise description can make the character seem distant or flat.

Direct vs Indirect Characterization, Tip #5: Be Intentional

Direct characterisation can be injected into a tense moment to prolong the suspense or to slow a revelation. Use this carefully, as the pace of your scene will slow as well.

Direct vs Indirect Characterization, Tip #6: Be Consistent

Indirect characterisation may leave doubt for the reader. However, when a character does several kind actions, the reader understands this is a personality trait.

Direct vs Indirect Characterization, Tip #7: Be Creative

Direct characterisation can be expressed through figurative language like metaphors. Adding a scene to support a direct characterisation can add spice to your story.

direct vs indirect characterisation

Characterization Conclusion

With craft and care, writers make complex characters that readers love and remember.

Direct and indirect characterisation are literary tools to amplify our connection to those characters: the heart of our stories.

Rather than thinking about these tools as opposing forces (direct vs indirect characterisation), think of them as tools you can use together to create memorable characters.


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