Strong characters do more than drive a story; they sell it. Direct and indirect characterization will help you create a powerful story with unforgettable protagonists. Here are some tips.
This is the easiest way to convey information about a character. For example:
- He was slender and wiry, with dark eyes that shone like banked coals.
- She didn’t like stupid people. She never had the patience for them.
If you’re getting suspicious about how easy and simple this is, you’re right. This mode of characterization is a lot like telling instead of showing. And like telling, it has its place and must be used carefully.
When to use direct characterization:
- When you have a short point to make (e.g. she had blue eyes), and you don’t want to belabor the point by fleshing it out into a scene.
- When you’re dealing with minor attributes that shouldn’t take up too much space.
- Most physical description is usually done in this manner. Careful not to overuse it (see below).
When not to use it:
- When you need to convey a key trait of your character, which is important enough to show.
- When showing the trait is just as simple and fast as telling it.
How to use it:
- Sparingly. In particular, avoid a list of physical traits. Shopping lists made of hair color and style, skin tone, eye color, cheekbone height, and so on are extremely boring. They don’t make your readers envision your character accurately; they make your readers skim or stop reading.
- Creatively. Don’t have a character look into a mirror and lament about or enjoy what they see. The mirror scene has been done to death. In fact, many readers are allergic to the word “mirror”. Look for other ways to include attributes.
- In tandem with thoughts, emotions, or decisions. For example, “she had blue eyes” evokes very little. “She hated her pale blue fish eyes,” on the other hand, reveals something about the character as well.
- Organically. Only note attributes when they come up organically, in the context of the story. A character would not normally refer to his eye color, for example, because we never stop to think much about it. But if he sees someone with eyes of unusual color, he might get jealous on account of his boring, brown eyes.
The way a character interacts with the environment and with herself gives us many insights to that character. When the attribute can be guessed at, but is not mentioned explicitly, you get this mode of characterization.
There are several ways to characterize someone without naming attributes:
- Actions and choices. If you show your character jumping at shadows, for example, you indicate they are fearful or edgy. If they run away from every minor danger, you indicate they are cowardly.
- Speech. If someone barely speaks, or stutters and trails off (especially in combination with body language), they may come across as shy. When someone is constantly praising himself, he is likely vain.
- Body language. A bold character would hold herself differently and make a different impression than a timid character. Someone who constantly talks with grand hand motions is likely an enthusiastic person, or a dramatic one.
- Looks. If the character dresses in shabby clothes despite being rich, they’re probably rebelling against some social norm or making a point.
- Thoughts. If your character keeps wondering what people gain from interacting with him, then he’s likely insecure, hurt, or extremely distrustful.
- Reactions. If everyone likes your character and shows this, then your character is a rather loveable person. If everyone looks down on him, you convey a different message about him.
Notice the amount of “probably” and "likely" in the examples above. They occur because this mode of characterization is less accurate than the direct mode. But it’s this vagueness, which is open to interpretation, is what gives it richness beyond the obvious.
When to use indirect characterization:
- Whenever your protagonist moves, speaks, thinks, or feels, it must reflect their true character.
- When setting up the story (in the exposition). Choose your protagonist’s stronger trait, or the trait that will change by the story’s end, and give a vivid example of it in a scene.
When not to use it:
- For minor attributes that the reader shouldn’t bother with.
- When demonstrating an attribute would require a scene that does not fit into the plot.
How to use it:
- Subtly. Don’t shout at the reader or wink at them and elbow them to get your point across. Let the character’s actions, thoughts, speech, and looks speak for the character. The reader will understand.
- Naturally. Think of indirect characterization as another aspect of showing instead of telling.
With these direct and indirect characterization tools under your belt, you’re ready to start portraying your character to the reader. Remember, above all, make your characters vivid and interesting. Interesting characters will give you all the opportunities you need to show them off without effort.