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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.