direct characterization


noun

the process by which the personality of a fictitious character is revealed by the use of descriptive adjectives, phrases, or epithets.

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What is direct characterization?

Direct characterization is a method of indicating what a character is like by directly stating their personality traits.

Characterization is the process of making a character (usually a fictional one but not always) seem like a fully fledged person by providing details about their personality. Direct characterization contrasts with indirect characterization, in which the character’s personality traits are not stated outright but are instead revealed through descriptions of their actions, speech, and interaction with other characters.

In most creative works, characterization is done through a mix of both direct and indirect methods. For example, the author could say “Amber was the bravest girl in the third grade” (direct characterization) and then later show Amber chasing down bank robbers (indirect characterization).

Direct characterization vs indirect characterization

You’ve heard the writing advice “show, don’t tell.” Well, direct characterization is when you tell. But that doesn’t mean it should never be done. Direct characterization is used all the time and can be a very effective way of establishing who a character is. It allows authors to just come right out and say it and saves readers from having to figure things out themselves.

In his famous short novel A Christmas Carol, author Charles Dickens introduced a character so memorable that his name became a way to say someone is grumpy and greedy. But Dickens doesn’t just say “Ebenezer Scrooge is grumpy and greedy.” No, Dickens introduces Scrooge by calling him “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!” Now that’s some epic direct characterization, using some perfectly chosen words (which is one of the joys of reading—and writing).

Dickens’s goal wasn’t for us to slowly realize that Scrooge is a stingy, cranky jerk. He wants us to know right away, and so he just says it. Direct characterization can be useful for quickly establishing some kind of foundational fact or piece of backstory before moving on to more subtle details.

But there’s a catch: if the whole book went on that way, Scrooge wouldn’t seem like a real person, and the reader would get tired of all the adjectives. Instead, Dickens gets us to realize just how low Scrooge can go by describing his interactions with others, such as when he refuses to make a donation to charity. Not only does he refuse, he suggests that poor people should die and “decrease the surplus population” (kids, don’t be like Scrooge). This is indirect characterization, and it lets readers figure things out for themselves (another one of the joys of reading).

Direct characterization is not limited to literature. It is also used in movies, TV, plays, any story in which characters appear. And characterization isn’t limited to fictional characters. Nonfiction works often use the same methods to portray a real person to the audience.

Sure, understanding how to identify both indirect and direct characterization will help you ace your English class. But it will also make you a better reader and writer and will probably make you enjoy storytelling even more. Unless you’re some kind of Scrooge.

Did you know ... ?

Check out this direct characterization of the title character from Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. How does the description impact your understanding of the character?

“The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. … Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.”

What are real-life examples of direct characterization?

This video shows several examples of direct characterization in the movie Mean Girls.

 

What other words are related to direct characterization?

Quiz yourself!

Which of the following choices is an example of direct characterization?

A. Describing how a character sticks up for a friend
B. Stating that a character has a kind heart
C. Describing the way a character puts on their shoes
D. Stating that a character always eats the same thing for lunch