Direct vs Indirect Characterization: What's the Difference?

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Characterization is how a writer brings a character to life by describing what they look like, do, feel, and think. Good characterization helps readers understand all of the written characters’ motivations and propels the plot forward by shedding light on their personalities, traits, desires, and interiority. You can relay this information in one of two ways: directly or indirectly.

In this post, we'll look at the differences between direct characterization and indirect characterization, their pros and cons, and how they can be combined to paint a believable picture of your book’s characters.

What is direct characterization?

You’ve probably heard the expression “Show, don’t tell” when it comes to writing. Showing is preferable to telling the reader because it lets readers make their own judgments about characters for a more satisfying experience. The difference between direct and indirect characterization can be generally summed up by either spectrum of that phrase. In the case of direct characterization, it includes whatever authors expressly tell readers about their characters.

Some things need to be directly said because they’re important details that readers might otherwise never infer on their own. For example, what your characters physically look like is difficult to divine without guidance, so it’s usually best to directly state these kinds of descriptions if they’re important. Another thing that’s easier and more efficient to state rather than subtly hint at is someone's profession or the kinds of things they’re pursuing in life. Basically, anything that would be difficult for readers to deduce through subtext alone or serves no purpose in being vaguely withheld should be relayed with direct characterization. It’s also common for authors to employ direct characterization to describe characters' personalities (such as explicitly stating that someone is kind, or cruel).

Here's an example of direct characterization of Mary Lennox in Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel The Secret Garden:

She had a little thin face and a little thin body, thin light hair and a sour expression. Her hair was yellow, and her face was yellow because she had been born in India and had always been ill in one way or another . . . . [B]y the time she was six years old she was as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived.

From this, we understand Mary's physical traits, how she behaves, and that she is only invested in herself, all of which the author explicitly tells us. This quickly sets up who Mary is now, while efficiently foreshadowing who Mary will someday become. Later, the character's appearance is contrastingly described as: “. . . downright pretty since she’s filled out and lost her ugly little sour look. Her hair’s grown thick and healthy looking and she’s got a bright color.”

What is indirect characterization?

Indirect characterization is the art of “showing” readers what a character is like instead of telling them. This can be done through a character’s actions, dialogue, and thoughts. For example, instead of telling readers that a character is funny, a writer might show them delivering a joke that makes people laugh. Indirect characterization allows audiences to imagine a character on their own terms, and come to their own conclusions about them.

In Yolk by Mary H. K. Choi, readers can glean a lot from the protagonist's thoughts and actions as she scrolls through the Instagram feed of a girl she just met:

In an image farther down, Rae is wearing a white blouse and a black cap and gown. Grinning. It’s a whole different energy. When I arrive at the caption, I close my eyes. I need a moment. I somehow sense the words before they fully register. She graduated from Oxford. It’s crushing that most of the caption is in Korean. She’s like me but so much better.

Although Choi never writes “Jayne is insecure about herself,” we gather that and more from this excellent example of indirect characterization. What’s more, the way we uncover this information is more relatable than simply reading Jayne say, “I’m super jealous of this stranger.”

When using indirect characterization in your own book, include descriptions like how your character treats others, what they do or don’t do at critical times, how they react to both good and bad things, and the way they speak to people hierarchically above and below them. The art of subtext is at the heart of indirect characterization.

Tips for using direct characterization

As stated above, one of the best times to employ direct characterization is when you need to state details about a character that readers cannot infer by themselves. Another good use of direct characterization is to offer descriptions that are best told concisely. After all, not everything needs to be creatively or longwindedly explained when one succinct, memorable sentence would do.

Try direct characterization when there are crucial details necessary for the plot that you can’t risk your audience not picking up on. For example, if the solution to the entire mystery of your novel hinges on the fact that one of the characters is wearing a coat with deep pockets, then be direct about that description. That is not the kind of key story detail you want to make a “blink and you miss it” moment by trying to be artfully indirect.

That being said, it’s usually a good idea to use direct characterization sparingly. If you don’t leave room for reader interpretation or nuance, you risk giving them a less satisfying experience. They want to use their imagination and be trusted to come to their own conclusions. Another downside to relying too heavily on direct characterization is writing ironically broad descriptions. After all, writing that a character is “coy” can mean so many things, so this phrase ends up lacking specificity even though it’s clearly and directly stated. Showing what you mean by “coy” would be much more effective.

Tips for using indirect characterization

Indirect characterization invites your audience to envision these characters and to bring their own backgrounds and experiences into their reading, making your story more real. Also, indirect characterization can be fun to write! Literary devices like dialogue and interiority give you a chance to infuse your book with voice and flare while also revealing key information about characters. It can also be an enjoyable challenge to link indirect characterization to the plot, so you and your readers can envision just how much each character grows in the story.

However, there are a few drawbacks to indirect characterization. The first is that sometimes descriptions can be inefficient or bloated when they lack concision, so make sure you always write with a discerning, editing eye. Secondly, if you’re not careful, readers may miss important details, or make erroneous conclusions if you’re too subtle. Take care not to be so indirect that you inadvertently sabotage your reader’s understanding of your characters.

Direct and indirect characterization in literature

Direct and indirect characterizations are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are most effective when blended together. Let’s go back to The Secret Garden to see how this is done. Remember how we were told that Mary Lennox is, at the beginning of the book, a “tyrannical and selfish” girl? Well, Burnett goes on to indirectly characterize this description of Mary. Consider the following passage:

The young English governess who came to teach her to read and write disliked her so much that she gave up her place in three months, and when other governesses came to try and fill it they always went away in a shorter time than the first one. So if Mary had not chosen to really want to know how to read books she would never have learned her letters at all.

Paired together, these selections of direct and indirect characterization efficiently paint a picture of Mary Lennox as a spoiled girl who is able to channel her stubbornness into something good, like learning to read. Sometimes direct characterization offers a chance to build indirect characterization right into it. For example, if you say that a character has overgrown bangs, then you’re giving readers a physical description as well as the suggestion that this person doesn’t have a high-maintenance personality. This kind of natural blending of the two types of characterization is effortless and effective and can help you craft more memorable characters.

Direct vs indirect characterization: Ready to use them in your story?

If you’re struggling to know when to be direct versus indirect, beta readers can help you pinpoint what needs to be stated more expressly, and what perhaps could have been more subtly hinted at for optimal reader enjoyment. Also, try re-reading some of your favorite books and marking examples of masterfully written direct and indirect characterization to see how they’re done and how to balance the two. Lastly, in order to jostle back and forth between both characterization types easily and aptly, make sure you know your characters through and through. The more real they are to you, the more intuitively you’ll be able to describe them to readers. For tips on how to familiarize yourself with your characters, check out this post on writing character backstories.

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