Posted on

Indirect characterization in creative writing

What Is Indirect Characterization in Literature?

Indirect characterization is when an author reveals a character’s traits through actions, thoughts, speech, etc., instead of saying it outright. For example, indirect characterization describing a protagonist might read, “John snapped at the man without warning,” whereas direct characterization would say simply, “John was short-tempered.”

Indirect characterization is an essential technique in creative writing, but it has its limitations. In this guide, we cover the fundamentals of indirect characterization to help you understand it and use it yourself. But first, let’s start with a conclusive definition of indirect characterization.

What is indirect characterization?

Indirect characterization is a type of literary device that reveals details about a character without stating them explicitly. Instead of describing a character in a straightforward way, the author shows their traits through that character’s actions, speech, thoughts, appearance, and how other characters react to them.

At times it’s tough to pinpoint an exact indirect characterization meaning, but in general it’s whenever the reader learns something about a character without being told outright. The alternative to indirect characterization is direct characterization, where the author plainly tells the reader about the character, such as their job, feelings, or motivations.

Why is indirect characterization important?

Characterization in general is not only necessary to narrative writing; it’s part of the fun! Getting to know realistically portrayed characters adds to the entertainment value of literature, and we often develop attachments to certain stories because of how we relate to specific characters.

Characterization is not something an author does just once. Rather, characterization is the culmination of many different character details at different times—when you put them together, you have a multifaceted character who feels realistic.

As a way to establish a character, indirect characterization has some advantages that direct characterization does not. Specifically, indirect characterization requires the reader to engage with the text more than direct characterization does; instead of spoon-feeding your reader, you help guide them to their own conclusions. When the reader has to think for themselves and put the pieces together on their own, the character and the story become more personal.

However, in some situations, you may choose to be clearer and state character traits more bluntly, so in those cases direct characterization is better.

The difference between direct and indirect characterization

In practice, the difference between direct and indirect characterization is whether the writer tells something straight to the reader (direct) or implies it(indirect). In other words, direct characterization tells while indirect characterization shows.

For example, let’s say you want to explain that a character is generous and compassionate. Direct characterization might describe them like this:

Because Sonia had grown up without much money, she developed a strong sense of compassion and gave to the needy every chance she got.

Indirect characterization is more subtle, relying on hints and signals instead of stating it forthright.

Sonia reached for her wallet the moment she saw the beggar. Remembering what it was like to go hungry as a child, she put her last dollar into his cup without hesitation.

Learning how to use direct and indirect characterization is a large part of writing, especially in writing a short story or a novel.

Methods of indirect characterization with examples

There are five main methods of indirect characterization: speech, thoughts, effect, action, and looks, often abbreviated STEAL. Let’s take a look at each one, using examples of indirect characterization from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Speech

The character makes statements that imply or suggest something about themself, usually in dialogue.

“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.”

“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”

Gatsby’s forceful line about repeating the past shows he’s quite optimistic about being able to repeat the past and adds greater detail to his motivation to pursue Daisy.

Thoughts

The character thinks or feels in a way that reveals something about who they are. Unlike speech, thoughts are observed only by the reader and the character themself.

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.

That Gatsby values his possessions based on Daisy’s opinion shows how much she means to him. It’s also worth noting that this observation is also an indirect characterization of Nick the narrator and tells the reader that he is starting to understand Gatsby’s personality.

Effect

The effect a character has on other characters says something about them. The reader sees how other characters react to them and follows their lead.

The instant her voice broke off ceasing to compel my attention, my belief, I felt the basic insincerity of what she had said. It made me uneasy, as though the whole evening had been a trick of some sort to exact a contributory emotion from me.

Nick’s reaction to Daisy’s story—him feeling manipulated—gives the reader a cue to how they should feel about the character—that she’s manipulative.

Action

The character’s own actions demonstrate what kind of person they are. This is often the most powerful form of indirect characterization, but also one of the hardest to pull off because it’s more nuanced.

The flowers were unnecessary, for at two o’clock a greenhouse arrived from Gatsby’s, with innumerable receptacles to contain it.

This passage shows us just how nervous Gatsby is about the meeting at Nick’s house; he ordered too many flowers (“a greenhouse,” for hyperbole) because he wants to be certain to make a good impression.

Looks

Sometimes a character’s appearance tells the reader something about them. You can use looks for both direct and indirect characterization. When used for indirect characterization, descriptions should suggest something about the character’s personality. If you’re merely describing a character’s physical traits, like their height or the color of their eyes, it’s direct characterization.

Two shining arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward. Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body—he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage—a cruel body.

This physical description of Tom paints him as both cocky and strong by focusing on his “arrogant eyes” and “great pack of muscle.” Notice how Fitzgerald uses direct characterization interwoven throughout the description, like the specific details about what Tom is wearing: “the effeminate swank of his riding clothes” and his “glistening boots.”

How and when to use indirect characterization

Here are three expert tips to help you use indirect characterization in your own writing.

1 Focus on the minutiae

The devil is in the details, as they say! The tiny things that go unnoticed in real life can be a great avenue for indirect characterization, such as how a character adjusts their hair, the state of their clothing, or subtle body language, like tapping a foot in impatience.

Not only do these little details reveal a lot about your character, they also make your story more vivid and lifelike.

2 Describe a character’s home or lifestyle to show their personality

Describing a character’s home and lifestyle is a great shortcut to demonstrating their character. For example, is their bedroom messy or clean? This is a big indicator of what kind of person they are. Other details, like what time they wake up, whether they have pets, or what food they eat are all great for indirectly showing their nature.

3 Use repetition and consistency

Just as in real life, a character will display their prominent traits over and over again. The trick for a writer is to think up new ways to show the same thing.

For example, if you want to show that a character is forgetful, you can have them arrive late to an appointment, ask a person’s name multiple times, and miss an assignment at work. Having all three incidents together makes a stronger impact than just one alone, and the consistency makes it easier for the reader to get a strong sense of the character.

Direct vs indirect characterization: How to show and tell

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?

  • Post author

Characterization describes the way a writer or actor creates or implies a character’s personality, their inner life and psyche. Two main ways to reveal your characters are direct characterization and indirect characterization. What are these character creation techniques? Read on for examples of characterization that illustrate both:

Guide to direct and indirect characterization: Contents

  1. What is direct characterization?
  2. Direct characterization example
  3. What is indirect characterization?
  4. Indirect characterization example
  5. Eight tips for using direct vs indirect characterization

Let’s delve into using both characterization devices:

What is direct characterization?

To begin with a definition of direct characterization, this means the author explicitly tells the reader a character’s personality.

For example, explicitly telling the reader a character is kind, funny, eccentric, and so forth.

Direct characterization example

Here’s an example of direct characterization from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1925).

Woolf explicitly shows what characters think of one another. In the example, an artist staying with the Ramsay family, Lily Briscoe, thinks about Mr Ramsay whom a man Mr Bankes has just called 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…

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (1925), p. 52.

This is direct characterization – through Lily, Woolf describes Mr. Ramsay’s traits directly.

It’s telling (direct characterization typically is), but because we read it as one character’s opinion of another, it also shows us how Lily feels, whether or not she agrees with the statement that Mr. Ramsay is a hypocrite.

Through Lily, we learn Ramsay is ‘absorbed in himself’ or self-absorbed, tyrannical – we read direct statements about Ramsay’s personality that help us picture him and how he comes across to others.

What is indirect characterization?

‘Indirect characterization’ shows readers your characters’ traits without explicitly describing them.

To give simpler examples of direct vs indirect characterization, for direct you might write, ‘Jessica was a goofy, eccentric teacher’.

For indirect revelation of Jessica’s character, you might write instead, ‘Jessica had named the stick with a hook on the end she used to open the classroom’s high windows Belinda and would regale her children with stories of Belinda’s adventures (even though they were fourteen, not four)’.

In the second example of characterization above (the indirect kind), it is inferred that Jessica is goofy and eccentric. She names inanimate objects and tells teenagers stories of make-believe that would probably be better-suited to younger children.

Indirect characterization invites your reader to deduce things about your characters, without explicitly telling them who they are.

Indirect characterization example

Here, John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath (1939) shows a character’s personality indirectly.

Steinbeck doesn’t say that hitchhiker Joad is a down-and-out, blue-collar worker. Instead, the author creates indirect characterization through the items a worker in this context would perhaps have: whiskey, cigarettes, calloused hands:

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.

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), p. 9.

Types of indirect characterization

What types of indirect characterization are there?

Any writing that helps us infer or deduce things about a person’s psyche, emotions, values or mannerisms. For example:

  1. Dialogue-based inference: From the way your character speaks to others in the story, your reader may deduce that they are kind, cruel, gentle, etc.
  2. Implying through action: What your character does (for example jumping on a beetle to squash it) implies their character (in this case, it may imply that a character is cruel).
  3. Fly-on-wall description: Although what visual description implies may differ from country to country, culture to culture, neutrally-worded description may cause your reader to make specific assumptions based on what you’ve shown. We might assume, for example, an extremely pale-skinned character is reclusive or agoraphobic, like the reclusive Boo Radley in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

So how do you use direct and indirect characterization well? Read tips for each:

8 tips for using direct and indirect characterization

  1. Avoid overusing direct characterization
  2. Be direct with key details
  3. Support direct character statements with scenes
  4. Imply character through action and reaction
  5. Tell direct details that serve concision
  6. Use dialogue to characterize indirectly
  7. Let narrative voice give character
  8. Read examples of direct and indirect characterization

Avoid overusing direct characterization

Direct characterization is useful shorthand. Instead of pages of a scene showing exactly how a character is mean, you could start with ‘He was mean.’

This is where balance is key, and overusing direct character revelation is wise to avoid.

If, for example, you wrote, ‘He was mean. He was petty and generally unkind, so that neighbors crossed the street when he passed,’ that mixes some indirect characterization with the direct type. Neighbors crossing the street is a visual that indirectly implies avoidance and discomfort or possible dislike.

If you were to only tell readers about your characters’ traits without weaving in illustrative showing (which give indirect inference about who your characters are), the effect would be:

  1. Hazy visuals: Crossing the street in the example above gives a more specific visual than simply saying ‘he was disliked by the community’.
  2. Lack of depth and color: If you tell your reader who your characters are exclusively with minimal showing or inferring, it may read as though you have a private understanding of your characters you are summarizing for the reader, rather than showing them a fuller, more detailed picture.

Create detailed character profiles

Create detailed character profiles in easy steps and grow a useful outline of your story’s cast.

Example of blending direct and indirect character detail

The opening of Toni Morrison’s powerful novel Beloved characterizes a house that is haunted by the ghost of an infant.

Note how Morrison moves from the direct characterization of the first sentence to specific, visual details:

124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old – as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard).

Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987), p. 17.

Be direct with key details

The trick to effective direct characterization is to reserve it for key details you want to establish upfront.

In the example of blending indirect and direct character description above, Morrison starts with direct, broad detail. A sense of spite that drives boys in the family from a home filled with the ghosts of a corrosive, violent history.

If you were to write a retelling of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol you might start with ‘Scrooge was stingy’ and then similar flesh this key detail out with the illustrative, supporting detail.

The indirect characterization you then add on to key details gives further texture, color, specificity to your characters. It helps, of course, to know your characters inside out:

Support direct character statements with scenes

The example above from Beloved shows how indirect characterization supports direct descriptive statements.

The boys Howard and Buglar fleeing from mirrors that seem to shatter by themselves or tiny hand prints appearing in a cake, for example. These specific images and incidents support the suggestion that the home at 124 is haunted by a ‘spiteful’ (or rather, determined-to-be-known) presence.

If you tell your reader a character is kind, think of dedicated scenes as well as passing moments that support the direct revelation.

Maybe your character gives up a seat on public transport for an elderly person. Maybe they help a neighbor get a pet that has run out of an open gate into a busy road to safety.

Indirect characterization is useful because it shows your reader the type of actions your character is likely to take.

This in turn enables your reader to make educated, qualified guesses about how your characters’ might react in situations whose outcome is not yet known. Through this, one ‘gets to know’ characters as though they were real people.

Imply character through action and reaction

Action and reaction provide useful ways to tell your reader who your characters are indirectly.

For example, Sarah has a vase that belonged to her grandmother that she cherishes, and her hyperactive son knocks it over and breaks it. Does she scold him to be careful? Lash out? Show a mix of anger and understanding?

Think about what you want your reader to infer about a character from the way they react, even in incidents or situations that are trivial or secondary to your story’s main plotline.

In this way every scene, every incident, will contribute toward building your characters’ personae.

Tell direct details that serve concision

One of the benefits of direct characterization is that it allows you to be concise.

Direct characterization is useful, for example, when a narrator is recapping prior events that are useful to the present story but not its main focus. For example, in the first page of Nick Hornby’s Slam, a novel about a sixteen-year-old skater named Sam:

So things were ticking along quite nicely. In fact, I’d say that good stuff had been happening pretty solidly for about six months.
– For example: Mum got rid of Steve, her rubbish boyfriend.
– For example: Mrs Gillet, my art and design teacher, took me to one side after a lesson and asked whether I’d thought of doing art at college.

Nick Hornby, Slam (2007), p. 1

At this point in the story, the reader doesn’t need lengthy exposition about why Steve was a rubbish boyfriend. So the direct, telling characterization suits the purpose of this part of the story – catching the reader up on what has been happening in the teenaged protagonist’s life.

There is still balance between indirect and direct characterization in this example. The second example Sam gives tells us (through Mrs Gillet’s action) that the teacher is caring and sees artistic potential in Sam, without saying so explicitly. The part or unique incident suggests the whole of the teacher-student relationship.

Use dialogue to characterize indirectly

Dialogue is a fantastic device for characterization because it may move the story forward while also telling your reader who characters are.

If, for example, there is banter and characters tease each other, it may imply an ease and familiarity (compared to stiff formality between strangers).

Note, for example, how Hornby creates a sense of how awkward Rabbit is (an 18-year-old skater at Grind City, a skate park Sam frequents) in the dialogue below:

‘Yo, Sam,’ he said.
Did I tell you that my name is sam? Well, now you know.
‘All right?’
‘How’s it going, man?’
‘OK.’
‘Right. Hey, Sam. I know what I was gonna ask you. You know your mum?’
See what I mean about Rabbit being thick? Yes, I told him. I knew my mum.

Hornby, pp. 11-12.

In this brief exchange, we see through the awkward, stop-start flow of conversation how Rabbit lacks social graces and awareness and (in the ensuing dialogue) reveals he has a crush on Sam’s mother.

Let narrative voice give character

Another useful way to use indirect characterization is to give an involved narrator (a narrator who is also a character in the story) a personality-filled voice.

In the above example of characterization via dialogue, for example, Sam’s asides to the reader (‘Well, now you know’ and ‘See what I mean about Rabbit being thick?’) create the sense of a streetwise, slightly jaded teenaged voice.

Think of ways to inject characters’ personalities into their narration. What subjects do they obsess over (it’s clear Sam loves skating from the first few pages of Slam)? How do they see others (Sam appears fairly dismissive and a little cocky, from referring to his mom’s ‘rubbish’ boyfriend to his blunt description of Rabbit as ‘thick’).

Use language in narration your character would use based on demographic details such as age, cultural background or class identity.

The casual, clipped language Sam uses in the example above suggests the awkward and ‘too cool’ qualities of a teenaged boy.

Read examples of direct and indirect characterization

To really understand the uses of direct and indirect characterization (and how to blend to two to show and tell, describe and imply), look for examples in books.

You could even write out the descriptions you love, to create your own guide to dip into whenever you’re creating characters.

Create believable, developed characters. Finishing a book is easier with structured tools and encouraging support.

Indirect Characterization Examples

Characterization refers to how authors develop characters in their writing. As we read, we need to understand the characters so that we understand how their actions help the plot to unfold. We also usually like to get a sense of what they look like as we read.

There are two main types of characterization: direct and indirect characterization . Direct characterization is when the author comes right out and tells the reader what to think about the character.

Jeff was a mean boy.
Joe’s boss was stingy and rude.
Clarissa was the nicest girl in school.

Indirect characterization is the opposite of direct characterization. Instead of coming out and telling you what to think about the character, the author describes the person’s appearance, actions and words, and sometimes even thoughts to help the reader form an opinion about the character.

Examples of Indirect Characterization:

Jeff walked up to Mark and took his sandwich off of his plate. He took a bite, smirked at Mark, and then walked away.

When it was time to go home, Joe’s boss called him to his office. He told Joe that he would not get his paycheck for the week until he finished a report on a new product. Then, his boss got up, turned the lights off, and left the office to go home. Joe trudged back to his desk.

Clarissa saw what Jeff had done to Mark, and she quietly picked up her tray and went to sit with Mark. She cut her own sandwich in half and gave Mark half. Then, she started to talk to Mark about his favorite television show until he forgot all about Jeff.

Examples of Indirect Characterization from Literature:

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee uses indirect characterization to describe one of Scout’s neighbors-Mrs. Dubose.

Mrs. Dubose lived alone except for a Negro girl in constant attendance, two doors up the street from us in a house with steep front steps and a dog-trot hall. She was very old; she spent most of each day in bed and the rest of it in a wheelchair. It was rumored that she kept a CSA pistol concealed among her numerous shawls and wraps. Jem and I hated her. If she was on the porch when we passed, we would be raked by her wrathful gaze, subjected to ruthless interrogation regarding our behavior, and given a melancholy prediction on what we would amount to when we grew up, which was always nothing. We had long ago given up the idea of walking past her house on the opposite side of the street; that only made her raise her voice and let the whole neighborhood in on it. We could do nothing to please her. If I said as sunnily as I could, “Hey, Mrs. Dubose,” I would receive for an answer, “Don’t you say hey to me, you ugly girl! You say good afternoon, Mrs. Dubose!”

In “Sonnet 130,” William Shakespeare uses indirect characterization to describe his mistress:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.