Indirect Characterization: What Is It and How to Use It in Your Writing

Jakob Straub
Jakob Straub, Content Writer

Characters in fictional works, such as books and movies, have personalities and traits much like real people. As a writer, you reveal these to the reader through the process of direct or indirect characterization. You can straight up tell which qualities a character has, or more subtly show them in their actions, words, and thoughts, and let the reader infer character traits.

Indirect characterization is the more complex type of characterization and potentially more difficult to master as a literary device. The following indirect characterization definition will explain the differences between the two, and we’ll give you examples and instructions on how to use the technique in your own writing.

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What is indirect characterization?

Writing a film script, a short story or a novel, you’ll populate your work with fictional people. The personages you invent as a writer are commonly referred to as characters. From hero to villain and everything in between, give the reader a representation of your characters and describe their physical traits, their appearance, their point of view, personality, private thoughts, and actions.

These character traits and character details allow the reader to get to know the characters and antagonize them or empathize with them. The term characterization, and sometimes the synonymous character development, refer to this representation. There are two types of characterization:

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    Direct characterization:

“He was not well-liked, for he was a highly immoral man.”

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    Indirect characterization:

“Every morning as he walked around the block, people skirted his path, for he was in the habit of muttering under his breath and staring passersby in the eye.”

As you can see, the above example of direct characterization informs the reader of a character’s qualities and even passes a moral judgment. But without further details, the reader can only take the author’s word for it.

The second example of indirect characterization shows a typical character act and lets the reader draw their own conclusions from the reactions of others. The description doesn’t call the person unlikeable but shows unlikeable behavior. Indirect characterization is more subtle, ambiguous, and intriguing. Even though the reader doesn’t empathize with this character, their curiosity and interest might be piqued, and they’ll want to know more.

Indirect characterization works through inferences. As a writer, you describe a character’s appearance, a character’s thoughts, or a character’s actions which suggest a certain personality, character traits, or moral code to the reader. Consider the following character acts:

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    The character kicks a dog:

It’s fair to assume the reader might picture this person as unlikeable, mean, wretched, bad, evil, amoral or immoral, unscrupulous, dishonest, shameless, wicked, villainous, dodgy, unprincipled, corrupt, shady, ignoble…

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    The character saves a cat:

Seeing a character perform this action, the reader could think of them as likable, heroic, kind, good-hearted, noble, bold, daring, principled, selfless, gentle, loving, compassionate, understanding, humane, good, moral, decent, benevolent, agreeable, empathetic…

You get the idea: in neither case does the writing tell the reader anything directly about the character, their inner life, or the principles that guide them. The character’s actions and what we associate with them lead us to inferences about the character.

Indirect characterization shows character traits without directly telling them to the reader. The writer employs literary devices such as similes, metaphors, and analogies, as well as descriptions of character details such as their appearance, actions, thoughts, words, and reactions from other characters. From these, the reader will make inferences and deductions about the character, as well as their traits and personality.

Direct vs. indirect characterization: how do they differ?

The opposite of indirect characterization is direct characterization, in which you as a writer make straightforward statements about a character, their thoughts and feelings, or the character’s motivations. This direct approach can appear as if you’re addressing the reader directly. If you only use direct characterization, editors and other writers might advise you to show, don’t tell—however, most writers mix both direct and indirect characterization, often for effect.

Above, we’ve illustrated the principle of showing with the character acts of kicking a dog or saving a cat and the reader’s inferences from that. Let’s look at an example of direct characterization:

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    Characterization through the narrator: She was good-looking, with long, blond, flowing hair.
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    Through another character: “Mister Thompson, I don’t like him; he always wears that scowl on his face, judging you.”
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    By the character themselves: I’m a man of simple tastes, and yet difficult to please.
Explicit or direct characterization: The writer tells the reader what a character is like and talks about their personality or character traits as if they’re giving a physical description, either via the narrator, another character, or the character themselves.
Implicit or indirect characterization: The reader makes character assessments through inferences from the character’s thoughts, their actions and physical appearance, their manner of speaking and other mannerisms, and interaction with other characters.

In summary: the difference between direct and indirect characterization is whether the writer relays characterization directly to the reader, or merely implies things about the character. Direct characterization tells while indirect characterization shows.

Examples of indirect characterization in writing

The following indirect characterization examples illustrate how authors use speech, a character’s thoughts, action and interaction, as well as physical description to characterize.

In To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Atticus is speaking to Scout about an upcoming trial and that he intends to stand up for what he believes in. The inferences the reader can make are about the character’s moral compass, his beliefs, and the morals he wants to instill in others.

Scout, simply by the nature of the work, every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one’s mine, I guess. You might hear some ugly talk about it at school, but do one thing for me if you will: you just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ’em get your goat.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens highlights the differences between direct and indirect characterization. The reader gets to know Scrooge as a stingy character with a general distrust and dislike of other people. From the beginning, Dickens portrays him through unlikeable actions: yelling at his nephew, chasing away carolers, and kicking out a fundraiser. In his own words, Scrooge shows he hates Christmas, because it goes against his principles:

A poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December!

Yet Dickens goes further to make absolutely certain Scrooge comes across as a ‘hopeless case’ when he lets the narrator double down with a flurry of adjectives. This direct characterization doesn’t mince words and directly tells the narrator’s opinion of Scrooge:

A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.

John Steinbeck uses indirect characterization in The Grapes of Wrath to give the reader the impression Joad is a ragged blue-collar worker by talking about his physical appearance, and his mannerisms. We can almost smell the whiskey on his breath and the tobacco on his calloused fingers, from which we infer the character’s standing in life, and his likely attitude:

Joad took a quick drink from the flask. He dragged the last smoke from his raveling cigarette and then, with calloused 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.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald shows how writers use various ways of indirect characterization to suggest personality traits to the reader.

Characterization through speech

The following words spoken by Gatsby himself show his optimistic outlook, his motivation and determination, and a near-omnipotent illusion of grandeur:

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

Characterization through a character’s thoughts

A character’s thoughts are only known to the character themselves, the narrator who relays them, and the reader. Therefore, this is a very intimate form of characterization, which can reveal thoughts, feelings, attitudes, opinions, and understanding.

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.

This is mental commentary by the narrator Nick as he observes Gatsby’s behavior, who apparently wants to impress Daisy and learn what she likes. It also makes Gatsby more human in Nick’s eyes.

Effect: characterization through interaction

When the reader learns how other characters view a fictional character or interact with them, they can agree or disagree, depending on the reasoning. In the following passage from The Great Gatsby, the narrator Nick feels manipulated by Daisy, which has the effect of distrust, dislike, and distancing:

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.

Characterization through action

You’ll have heard the adage of actions speak louder than words, which makes this type of characterization most effective.

At two o’clock a greenhouse arrived from Gatsby’s, with innumerable receptacles to contain it.

“Greenhouse” here is a hyperbole to underline just how many flowers Gatsby ordered for the meeting at Nick’s house: the character is nervous and goes too far in his attempt at impressing Daisy.

Characterization through looks

When your writing gives a physical description of a character and only concerns the physical traits, it’s an example of direct characterization. But indirect characterization is suggestive, leading the reader to inferences about the character’s personality and character traits. The following description of Tom in The Great Gatsby mixes the two types of 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.

Writing 101: How to use indirect characterization in writing

Show, don’t tell is helpful to remind yourself to use indirect characterization in your writing. To remember the five types of indirect characterization outlined above in the examples from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, think of the acronym STEAL, short for: speech, a character’s thoughts, effect (their interaction with others), a character’s actions, and a character’s look.

Direct characterization is explicit, broad, and concise. Consider it a kind of shorthand upon which you can build to expand the characterization with inferences. The less direct characterization you use, the bigger their impact will be in the few instances when they pop up.

Direct characterization alone leads to the impression of flat characters. “He was mean” is an absolute statement, but in real life, all of us are neither one hundred percent good nor bad. Indirect characterization can achieve this ambiguity. To avoid flat characters, keep a character profile worksheet in which you record their physical traits along with their personality traits. As an exercise, throw your characters into situations and brainstorm how they would behave based on this worksheet.

Indirect characterization is implicit and shows specific character acts or behavior so the reader will infer personality traits and character traits: these single instances imply an underlying pattern and draw a rich picture using speech, thoughts, effect, action, and looks (STEAL).

Methods of indirect characterization

Balance your direct and indirect characterization and use the following techniques and methods in your writing:

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    Be direct upfront: You can keep direct characterization for crucial character details you want to establish early on, then flesh these out later indirectly.
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    Let it play out: Indirect examples of character traits work well when they are relevant to the story. Don’t insert flashbacks with the sole purpose of representing your character’s actions from long ago, but reveal their personality as the scenes of your plot play out one by one.
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    Action and reaction: Your characters have their own agenda or motivation in each scene, regardless if they’re the villain, hero, or a secondary character. Let the reader make inferences from their actions and reactions as their emotions, thoughts, and attitudes come through.
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    The purpose of being direct: Direct characterization has the benefit of being concise, so you can use it sparsely to recap things for the reader, insert reminders, or enhance the narrative voice.
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    Narrative voice: The narrator of your story, whether involved in the story or not, will have their own take on things. Inject personality in their voice and let them characterize the personae.
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    Dialog: Your characters talking to each other can be most effective for relaying information, including character details.

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More tips for using indirect characterization in fiction writing

In conclusion, here are a few more things to keep in mind when writing indirect characterization:

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    Details: Observe the mannerisms of people in real life and explore your thoughts, feelings, and opinions of them. How do you characterize quirks, body language, and habits, and what can they reveal?
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    Surroundings: We all behave differently depending on where we are. Familiar surroundings can make us feel comfortable, while we react with alertness or nervousness to unknown places and situations. What does the home, lifestyle, or world of your character look like, and what does it indicate for their character development?
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    Typical behavior: Character traits and quirks come out again and again. An extreme form of this is an often repeated catchphrase or punchline, but if you do this with more nuance, you’ll come up with new ways to show the same side of your character’s personality.
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    Character development: Repetition and consistent behavior aside, we all change; it’s called character development for a reason! How is your character different at the end of your story from who they were at the beginning? How does this affect your indirect characterization of them?
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    Be an avid reader: We’re not telling you to copy other writers, but pay attention to the characterizations in works of fiction you read, from novels to screenplays: how does the writer blend direct and indirect characterization, when and how does the character’s personality come out, and how does the writer show the personality traits—subtly, or shouting it from the rooftops, figuratively speaking?

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