indirect characterization

[ in-duh-rekt kar-ik-ter-uh-zey-shuhn, kar-ik-truh-zey-shuhn, in-dahy-rekt ]


  1. the process by which the personality of a fictitious character is revealed through the character's speech, actions, appearance, etc. Compare direct characterization.

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Word History and Origins

Origin of indirect characterization1

First recorded in 1870–75


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More About Indirect Characterization

What is indirect characterization?

Indirect characterization is a method of indicating what a character is like by revealing their personality through descriptions of their actions, speech, appearance, and interactions with other characters.

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. Indirect characterization contrasts with direct characterization, in which the character’s personality traits are stated directly.

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).

Indirect characterization vs. direct characterization

Yes, indirect characterization is one of those terms you get quizzed on in English class. But think about this: who’s your favorite fictional character, and what makes you love them? Chances are, part of the answer has to do with skilled indirect characterization. Characterization is how writers make their characters leap off the page. If a character feels real to you, that’s good characterization at work. Indirect characterization allows a writer to build up a character while advancing the plot and the world of the story all at the same time.

You’ve heard the writing advice “show, don’t tell.” Indirect characterization is the showing. It’s showing how a character acts, how they feel, what they say, what they think, how they interact with others. All of this is to allow readers to figure out for themselves what a character is like, instead of simply being told outright. This creates a more engaging and lifelike story.

Indirect characterization can be achieved in several ways. You can remember some of the main ways with the acronym TALES:

  • Thoughts. If a character often thinks about another character’s wellbeing, they probably care about that person.
  • Actions. If a character mistreats a child or an animal, we know they can’t be trusted.
  • Looks. If a character wears fancy, expensive clothes, we know they’re rich or want to appear like they are.
  • Effect (on other characters). If a character seems to make other characters nervous, that probably means the character is intimidating or mean.
  • Speech. If a character speaks very little, we can tell that they are reserved or maybe that they have something to hide.

Most of the time, indirect characterization is used alongside direct characterization, which can be useful for quickly establishing some kind of foundational fact or piece of backstory before moving on to more subtle details. In his famous short novel A Christmas Carol, author Charles Dickens introduces Ebenezer Scrooge by calling him “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!” This is straight-up direct characterization. He wants us to know right away that Scrooge is a stingy, cranky jerk.

But the whole book doesn’t go on this way. If it did, Scrooge wouldn’t seem like a real person, and the reader would get tired of all the adjectives. Instead, Dickens uses indirect characterization. He 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. (Total Scrooge move.)

Indirect 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 can use the same methods to portray a real person to the audience.

Sure, understanding how to identify both direct and indirect characterization will help you ace your English class. But it will make you a better reader and writer and will probably make you enjoy storytelling even more.

Did you know ... ?

Indirect characterization isn’t only for writers. To make the characters they play more interesting or more believable, actors add characterization that isn’t in the script, such as by speaking in a certain way or even choosing a unique way for the character to walk.

What are real-life examples of indirect characterization?

In this example of indirect characterization from the movie The Breakfast Club, there is no narration and almost no dialogue. Instead, you get a sense of who the characters are simply from seeing what they have for lunch and how they eat it.

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What other words are related to indirect characterization?

Quiz yourself!

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

A. Describing a character’s possessions in a way that shows they are careless with them
B. Stating that a character has a short temper
C. Describing the weather
D. Stating that two characters are in love




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