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What Is Indirect Characterization

When you read a story, certain characters typically receive a certain “label” for the reader to understand their role. With indirect characterization, the author uses personality traits and other descriptions to describe a character instead of using direct adjectives to do so.

Indirect characterization uses speech patterns, appearance, or actions to help show the personality of each character within a story. Think of this process like you’re watching a movie or a TV show. Villains aren’t labeled as “evil.” Their costumes, actions, and maniacal laugh let the audience know that they’re the antagonist of the story. Authors do the same thing, but only through words.

This forces the reader to pay attention to how each character is described in a story and focus on the actions that are being taken. It is a way for the imagination of the reader to follow the journey which the author has started for them.

The Differences Between Indirect and Direct Characterization
Direct characterization occurs when an author tells the reader exactly who a character is and what their personality is going to be. If you’ve heard the phrase “Show them instead of telling them,” then direct characterization would be represented by the phrase “Tell them instead of showing them.”

It is very easy to provide direct characterization without realizing that this is being done. Take this phrase, for example: “John had a kind heart. He believed in a simple life and that meant loving one’s neighbor the same way a person loves themselves.”

These adjectives are very specific in regards to who John happens to be as a person. The reader is not given the opportunity to use their imagination to picture the details of John’s personality. This makes it an example of direct characterization.

Now here’s an example of indirect characterization. “John always had a smile on his face. Instead of spending money, he preferred to save it or give it away. He’d even get up early some mornings to make sure his neighbor’s property had the grass cut or sidewalks shoveled.”

Will the reader believe the same things about John through indirect characterization instead of direct characterization? Probably. Even if there are slight differences, the reader receives more investment into the story because they’ve picture who they think John happens to be. This helps them step into John’s personality so the story becomes a living, breathing entity.

How to Make the Most of Indirect Characterization
If you’re including indirect characterization into a narrative, then you have 5 specific methods that will help your work inspire your readers to use their imagination. Each method offers a unique advantage to the story being told.

#1. Speech.
How a character speaks to others or to themselves can offer readers an indirect glimpse into the personality of the character using the power of dialogue.

#2. Thought.
Instead of having a character engage with others in a narrative, thought patterns can accomplish the same indirect characterization without the need to have dialogue in place which advances the story.

#3. Action.
The decisions of a character will also help the reader be able to define personality characteristics. Actions may also include certain behaviors that occur in specific moments of time within the scope of the narrative.

#4. Looks.
How a character appears to the reader will also influence the characterization that readers receive. Specific items within their look or even items that are discussed in certain scenes that a character owns can unlock clues to the reader about that character’s personality.

#5. Effects.
What impact does a character have on others within the narrative? Showing readers how different characters react to the one being characterized or how they feel about this character will also help the reader gain an accurate picture of the story without direct characterization.

For those who love to remember things through acronyms, you can recall the specific opportunities to use indirect characterization within a narrative by remembering the word STALE. Because if you constantly use direct characterization within your story, it will eventually become stale to the reader, so some indirect characterization should be used.

When to Use Indirect Characterization in a Story
Indirect characterization can always be used within any narrative. The descriptions offered to the reader do not need to be lengthy and dramatic. A sentence or two which shows the reader who a character happens to be instead of telling them what to expect from a character will enhance the reading experience because it adds depth to the story.

What is indirect characterization? It is the key needed to unlock the potential of every character in any story.

Melissa G Wilson

Melissa has been a leader in the book writing, publishing and marketing arena for the past two decades. To date, she has helped more than 100 thought leaders write, publish and market their books. Her clients include executives such as Dan Weinfurter a seven-time Inc 500 winner and Orlando Ashford, President of Holland Cruise Lines.

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