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Indirect Characterization: What It Is and 5 Types You Need to Know

Indirect characterization is a key tool in any writer's toolbox for both non-fiction and fiction writing. By definition, it is the process of showing aspects of a character's personality indirectly, through their actions, dialogue, and thoughts. Used effectively, indirect characterization can add depth and dimension to your characters, making them feel more real to readers.

In this article, we'll explain the difference between direct and indirect characterization, explore five different types of indirect characterization, and give your some examples of indirect characterization.  

Direct characterization vs indirect characterization

The difference between direct and indirect characterization is important to understand.

Direct characterization (or explicit characterization) is when a writer tells the reader what a character is like directly, through their words or actions. Direct characterization tells  the reader what to think about a character. It's pretty straightforward: the writer tells the reader what the character is like, and the reader forms an opinion based on that information.

Indirect characterization, on the other hand, is when a writer shows the reader what a character is like indirectly, by revealing the character's personality traits and key character details in different ways.

The advantages of using indirect characterization

One of the key advantages of indirect characterization is that it allows writers to explore characters in more depth. By revealing character details and aspects of their personality gradually, over time, readers can get to know them better and form stronger connections with them. Giving readers details sparingly also allows them to make their own interpretations of characters, which can be rich and rewarding.

Indirect characterization shows, rather than tells. Telling can be heavy-handed and can often feel artificial or forced. Showing, on the other hand, is subtler and allows readers to draw their own conclusions about characters.

Five Types of Indirect Characterization

Now that we've defined indirect characterization and discussed its benefits, let's take a closer look at five common types of indirect characterization.

1. Appearance

Appearance is probably the most self-explanatory indirect characteristic. It is the physical description of the character and what they look like on the outside.

For example, if a character has red hair and freckles, that would be part of their appearance. Another example might be if a character is always impeccably dressed. Giving the character's physical traits can be a quick and easy way to hint at their personality.

What a character wears can be especially telling. Clothes can be used to show that a character is wealthy, or poor, fashionable or not, etc. They can also be used to show things like occupation (a uniform) or hobbies (a sports jersey).

Appearance can also include things like how a character moves, or what kind of voice they have.

In some cases, appearance can even be used to reveal a character's mental state. For instance, if a character has disheveled hair and clothes it might show that they are unkempt or stressed out.

2. Actions

Actions are what the character does. A character's actions can be anything from the big things, like saving a cat from a burning building, to the small mannerisms, like fidgeting with a pencil when they're nervous. When you're writing your story, pay attention to the little details and ask yourself how each one might reveal something about the character.

For example: if your protagonist is always late for appointments, that might tell us that she's disorganized and doesn't value other people's time. Or if your antagonist never takes no for an answer, that might suggest that he's aggressive and domineering.

When it comes to actions, think about both the individual action itself and also why the character is doing it. Why does your protagonist always show up late for appointments? Is it because she's disorganized, or is there another reason? Why does your antagonist never take no for an answer? Is he stubborn, or does he have a more complicated motivation?

3. Thoughts

Thoughts are what goes on in the character's head. This can be anything from daydreams and fantasies to dark thoughts and fears. Thoughts can be revealing, especially if the character is thinking about something that they would never say out loud.

For example: if your protagonist is daydreaming about being a famous musician, that might tell us that she's creative and has big dreams. If your antagonist is afraid of failure, that might suggest that he's insecure and lacks confidence.

As with actions, it's important to think about both the content of the thought itself and also why the character is thinking it. Why is your protagonist daydreaming about being a famous musician? Is she creative and ambitious, or does she have low self-esteem? Why is your antagonist afraid of failure? Is he insecure, or does he have a specific reason to be scared?

4. Words

Words are what the character says, both out loud and in their internal monologue. This includes everything from casual conversation to heated arguments. Like thoughts, words can be revealing, especially if the character is saying something that they would never say out loud.

For example: if your protagonist is always making jokes, even in serious situations, that might tell us that she's using humor as a defense mechanism. If your antagonist is constantly putting other people down, that might suggest that he's insecure and feels the need to put others down in order to feel better about himself.

As with thoughts and actions, it's important to think about both the content of the words and also why the character is saying them. Why is your protagonist making jokes even in serious situations? Is she trying to keep her anxiety under control, or does she just have a funny personality? Why is your antagonist putting other people down? Is he trying to make himself feel powerful, or does he have a different motivation?

5. The reactions of other characters to the character in question

Finally, it's important to consider the reactions of other characters to the character in question. This includes both direct and indirect characterization.

For example: if everyone is afraid of your protagonist, that might suggest that she's aggressive or violent. If everyone loves your antagonist, that might suggest that he's charming and likable.

Pay attention not just to what other characters say about the character, but also how they act around them. Are they cautious around your protagonist? Do they avoid him/her? Or are they drawn to them and want to be friends? Are other characters dismissive or mean towards your antagonist? Does he get along with everyone, or does he have enemies?

Conclusion

Indirect characterization is a way of describing a character by hinting at their personality traits without directly stating them. It's often done through the reactions of other characters, both to what the character says and does, as well as their thoughts and words.

Using indirect characterization along with direct characterization is important in creating a believable and well-rounded character. By using multiple methods of characterization, you can provide readers with a more complete picture of who the character is.

Hopefully these fives types explained in this article and the indirect characterization examples given will help you get a better understanding of your character, their thoughts, words, actions and the reactions of other characters around them.

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