Our connection to characters creates stories we love, and we can create loveable characters through direct vs indirect characterisation.
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.
Characterisation forges the links between readers and characters.
But that begs the question, what is direct vs indirect characterisation?
Characterisation can be direct or indirect. At its most basic, direct characterisation tells while indirect characterisation 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 characterisation.
Looking for a literary device to put you in control of how your readers understand your characters? Direct characterisation 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 characterisation allows this!
Full, engaging characters are drawn using both direct and indirect characterisation. 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.
Let’s dig in to the direct vs indirect characterisation debate!
Direct characterisation 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 characterisation 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 characterisation debate, direct characterisation puts the writer in control.
Indirect characterisation 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
Anne’s dramatic nature is clear in her reaction to the realisation 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 characterisation may lead to misinterpretation. Writers might use the ambiguity to surprise or challenge the readers.
Indirect characterisation asks the reader to use their:
- Logic, and;
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 characterisation debate, indirect characterisation gives the reader some control.
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)
Tips for Direct vs Indirect Characterisation
Direct vs Indirect Characterisation, 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 Characterisation, 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 Characterisation, 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 Characterisation, 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 Characterisation, 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 Characterisation, 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 Characterisation, 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.
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.
Article Written by Lisa Taylor
Stories are powerful. Through my experience as an educator and librarian, I’ve explored how stories work and supported writers in finding their voices and honing their craft.
As a Fictionary Certified StoryCoach Editor, I offer a thorough, objective structural story edit that honours your voice, recognises and celebrates your skill, and offers clear, actionable ideas on ways to make your story shine even more. You can reach me through the Fictionary Online Community.
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