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Direct and Indirect Characterization

(With Examples)

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Manuscript Mentoring

Aug. 6, 2020 · 4 Min Read

Image of a man reading a book, which represents characterization

Characterization Definition

characterization  noun


: the act of characterizing

especially : the artistic representation (as in fiction or drama) of human character or motives

// the author's characterization of the boy as someone who wanted to be accepted by others

—  Merriam-Webster

In short, characterization is the display of a character’s personality, beliefs, and motives through action, dialogue, and description. These traits can be showcased either directly or indirectly, but they always help to answer the following question: What is the character’s ultimate purpose? Not what makes the character unique, although this is also a consideration, but purpose. If the character is supposed to be mysterious to further the plot, then portraying her as a talkative gossip may not be the best idea. If she lies, then it is to show her contempt or loyalty; if she stands up to a tyrant, then it is to prove her bravery; if she scales a tower without a rope, then it is to show how agile a thief she is.

Direct Characterization Definition

Direct characterization in a novel is when the author explicitly conveys a character’s personality traits and/or ideological beliefs to the reader. For example, if Pete is smart, cunning, and occasionally cruel, then the author states: Pete is smart, cunning, and occasionally cruel. Dialogue and action are not used to show his intelligence or deceit—the author flat-out states what Pete is.

Direct Characterization Examples

The following extracts are examples of direct characterization in Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel, Wuthering Heights. Pay special attention to the highlighted passages.

At fifteen she was the queen of the country-side; she had no peer; and she did turn out a haughty, headstrong creature! I own I did not like her, after infancy was past; and I vexed her frequently by trying to bring down her arrogance: she never took an aversion to me, though. She had a wondrous constancy to old attachments: even Heathcliff kept his hold on her affections unalterably; and young Linton, with all his superiority, found it difficult to make an equally deep impression.

—  Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

In the above extract, the narrator explicitly describes the personality of a character. Specifically, she uses the words “headstrong”, and “arrogance”. In the last sentence, she also makes it clear that the character is not easily impressed. Note that there is no dialogue or action.

Catherine had kept up her acquaintance with the Lintons since her fiveweeks’ residence among them; and as she had no temptation to show her rough side in their company, and had the sense to be ashamed of being rude where she experienced such invariable courtesy, she imposed unwittingly on the old lady and gentleman by her ingenious cordiality; gained the admiration of Isabella, and the heart and soul of her brother: acquisitions that flattered her from the first—for she was full of ambition—and led her to adopt a double character without exactly intending to deceive any one.

—  Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

In the above example, the narrator lists the properties of a character to the reader. She has a “rough side”, she has “cordiality”, she is “ambitious”, and she is duplicitous. Again, there is no dialogue or action

Man walking, symbolizing introspection and characterization

Indirect Characterization Definition

Indirect characterization in a novel is when the author shows the character’s personality, motives, and ideological beliefs through dialogue and action. For example, if a character named Sally is angry because of the passing of a law, then the writer will show her picketing and chanting political slogans. The writer will not directly relate her emotional state to the reader by writing something akin to: Sally did not agree with the law; in fact, it made her angry.

Indirect Characterization Examples

The following extracts are examples of indirect characterization from Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Again, pay special attention to the highlighted passages. Liberty was taken with the indentations to enhance readability.

          ‘Mr. Heathcliff?’ I said.

          A nod was the answer.

          ‘Mr. Lockwood, your new tenant, sir. I do myself the honour of calling as soon as possible after my arrival, to express the hope that I have not inconvenienced you by my perseverance in soliciting the occupation of Thrushcross Grange: I heard yesterday you had had some thoughts—’

          ‘Thrushcross Grange is my own, sir,’ he interrupted, wincing. ‘I should not allow any one to inconvenience me, if I could hinder it—walk in!’

          The ‘walk in’ was uttered with closed teeth, and expressed the sentiment, ‘Go to the Deuce:’ even the gate over which he leant manifested no sympathising movement to the words; and I think that circumstance determined me to accept the invitation: I felt interested in a man who seemed more exaggeratedly reserved than myself.

—  Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Here, the author shows Heathcliff’s personality through dialogue. He is abrupt and does not care if he offends. Furthermore, he winces and speaks through closed teeth—hardly welcoming facial expressions. Heathcliff’s impatience and aloofness are therefore implied, not explicitly stated.

 ‘… And I’m certain Linton would recover quickly if he had me to look after him. I’m older than he is, you know, and wiser: less childish, am I not? … ’


—  Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

In the second example of indirect characterization, the character is self-reflective and a little insecure. The writer does not explicitly say this; instead, it is inferred from the character’s speech.

Manuscript Mentoring

Manuscript Mentoring teaches writers to write believable, engaging characters. If you need a professional developmental editor to help you with characterization, or any other facet of your writing, then have a look at our Services page.

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