Characterisation: Direct and Indirect Techniques

Developing a strong set of characters is vital to writing successful fiction. Here are a few pointers to get you on your way.

Characterisation

Strong characterisation is of fundamental importance to the success of any form of fiction. When you present a character to a reader, you need to think about the type of information you are providing them with. In simple terms, characterisation can be split into two distinctions – ‘Direct’ and ‘Indirect’ characterisation.

This article aims to explain and explore direct and indirect characterisation so that you can decide what type will most benefit your fiction and the strength of your characters.

I have used my own examples to reinforce my opinions. British spelling.

Direct Characterisation

This is when a writer tells us directly about a character’s personality, explaining to us what a character is like themselves. For a complex character personality, you need to think about whether leaving the reader to explore his or her own imagination will detract from the picture you are trying to paint. Direct characterisation forces a reader away from imagining, instead focussing on ‘telling’ them what a character is like.

Do you need to ‘tell’ the reader to explain a personality in the way you want? Does it save time and words doing it this way?

Indirect Characterisation

As opposed to direct characterisation, an indirect approach aims to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’. When you have two characters together in a piece of fiction, you can affect a reader’s judgement of either by illustrating the thoughts they have about one another. Similarly, if you let the reader know what a character is feeling, or thinking or saying, then the reader is influenced by the information you provide. This forces the reader’s imagination to examine a character more independently.

Do you want a reader to explore a character freely in their own head? Does it detract from your goal if two different readers get two different versions of the same character in their minds as a result?

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Neither form of characterisation is better than the other. A direct approach can keep a reader on track, or in agreement with your own vision of a character’s personality, whereas an indirect approach can force them to draw their own conclusions and push them inside the head of your characters.

You need to think about what type of characterisation is going to bring the right momentum to your narratives.

It is widely thought that indirect characterisation is more useful than direct characterisation, as it engages the reader on a more independent and imagination dependent level. This is something I don’t agree with. To create strong characters, you must use both forms of characterisation, direct and indirect.

Direct Characterisation is not wasteful with words. It gets the job done. For example, if you were mid-scene, and you needed to explain a character trait or an aspect of their personality (but wanted to get quickly back on track with the events occurring in the scene), then a direct approach would benefit the narrative.

An indirect characterisation approach will let the reader’s imagination run wild. In allowing them to do this, you might detract from the scene or context you had placed it in. Not always, however. You need to think about where you are placing your character descriptions, and how and what you are revealing about them can lend to a narrative.

If you want a reader to explore a character with their own imagination, it probably isn’t best to do it mid-dialogue. The reader may lose some of the contextual worth of a discussion, or a passage of description, because you have allowed them to investigate characteristics on their own during something else that required their focus. Allow them the freedom to explore a character in an indirect way, but try to place this type of opportunity in a context that won’t detract from the information surrounding it. Don’t let them get sidetracked. Unless you want them to, of course.

Examples of Direct and Indirect Characterisation

Direct:

Lewis always took ages to get ready. He really did. He always forgot something. He had to make sure that his outfit was just right – that was his problem. Eventually he would appear, say sorry, and you’d explain to him that he had taken ages – again.

Indirect:

Lewis looked at himself in the mirror, adjusting his shirt. He put on his new watch and looked at the time. Getting on, he thought. His wallet was somewhere, as were his keys, but he wasn’t ready to look yet. He looked at the shirts on his bed, thinking what to wear. After a while, he took off the one he was already wearing, picked up the yellow one instead and put it on. He looked into the mirror again, checking his beard and spraying some cologne on his neck. He found his keys on the side, and eventually his wallet appeared in a coat he had worn the night before. He put on his shoes and had one last look in the mirror by the door. His friends were waiting outside, grumpy and muttering because of the time he had taken. “Sorry.” He said.

Both examples communicate the same basic information – Lewis takes ages to get ready, that he takes pride in his appearance and that the friends that are waiting for him outside are not impressed. The Direct example doesn’t allow the reader to explore why Lewis takes so long to get ready. It just ‘tells’ you that this is the case. The second example, the indirect passage, ‘shows’ us why Lewis takes so long. It allows the reader to explore the character more openly, but importantly, it still explains the same key information as the direct passage.

In simple terms, direct characterisation is typically shorter than indirect characterisation, and allows less scope for the reader to use their own imagination. When you are writing, it is important to think about what type of characterisation technique you should use, and when, as both have different benefits.