Building Characters Using Direct Characterization
Building Characters Using Direct Characterization
by Holley Cornetto
To many readers, one of the most important aspects of a story is the characters. Characters, after all, are the window through which the reader experiences a story. As readers, we may not always like a character, but a character needs to be interesting enough to captivate our attention and make us want to read on.
There are two major ways that writers reveal information about character to the reader. These are known as direct characterization and indirect characterization. In this post, I’m going to discuss direct methods of characterization, what these methods convey to readers, and how.
The four direct methods of characterization are dialogue, description, action, and thought. All of these elements demonstrate something about the character to the reader.
Dialogue reveals a good bit about a character to the reader. The way a character speaks can inform readers about age, education level, region of origin (by the use of dialects or regional slang), but in addition to all of this information readers can glean directly, there is often more to dialogue than a surface level analysis.
Dialogue can demonstrate relationships. Because dialogue is a concentrated effort on the part of a character, readers may assume (in most cases) that that character has thought about what he or she is going to say before speaking. Taking that into account, any spoken dialogue from the main character has been processed, evaluated, and formed in his or her mind before they speak. Characters also reveal information in how they speak to another person. Using phrases like “ma’am” or “sir” may indicate that the character respects or feels nervous in relation to the person they are addressing. Speaking in slang, by contrast, may show that the character feels comfortable, or that they are speaking to a peer.
Description, or appearance, is another way that readers glean information about a character. Appearance is an important part of how people interact with and perceive one another, which means that descriptive detail is important in introducing readers to a character.
We meet a twenty-something year old woman on the street.
Consider the following scenarios:
- She is dressed in a neatly pressed business suit. She wears glasses, and her hair is pulled back into a neat bun.
- She is dressed in a miniskirt and seven-inch heels. Her eyes are heavily lined with black eyeliner, and she wears a bright shade of lipstick.
- She is dressed in a tattered, secondhand jacket, which is two sizes too big. Her hair is caked with grim and oil. There is dirt under her fingernails.
This could be the exact same woman on three very different days of her life. But, each of the hints above tell us something about her personality, through the way she chooses to present herself to the world. Characters don’t always have to fall into types, but description can help fill information in for a reader regarding a character’s socioeconomic status, personality, and habits. When readers interpret the cues above, they internalize something about the character based on their appearance.
Appearance isn’t the only aspect of description. Facial expressions, reactions to other people, tone of voice, and body language are all useful tools for describing the character to the reader.
Almost every story has an arc of some kind. Often, a story begins with a call to action or adventure. Sometimes this is referred to as the inciting incident. Either way, an event happens that sets off a series of actions that together (with a resolution) make up the basic bones of a story.
The way a character reacts to things – the action he or she takes – reveals a good deal about that character. Some characters thrive under pressure and naturally step up when things prove difficult. Others may try to run away and not deal with the problem or problems they are faced with. Both of these situations can lead to an interesting story, but both tell readers very different things about the characters involved.
Some characters panic, some want to form a plan, and others charge in head first and figure it out along the way. All of these approaches tell the reader about who the character is, and how they deal with certain situations.
Have you ever watched a movie with voice over narration in which the narrator gives the audience information about how they think or feel about events in the film? Access to a character’s thoughts gives the audience an idea of the motivations, desires, emotions, and intentions of a character. Luckily for writers, we can accomplish this same end without the device of voice over narration.
Thoughts give readers more information about a character than all of the other direct methods combined. Thoughts aren’t filtered and processed like dialogue, they aren’t performative like appearance, and they aren’t contradictory to who the character is, as actions can sometimes be. For the most part, thoughts can’t be misinterpreted (unless they are left intentionally ambiguous, or in the case of an unreliable narrator), and what the reader is presented with is an honest assessment of how the character actually feels.
Often an internal struggle is a strong basis for story, because when we read character driven narratives, readers expect the character to grow and change in some way. How best to see change than by being given access to a character’s thoughts?
Dialogue, description, action, and thought together reveal a great deal of information to the reader about a character. When writing, it’s important to consider each of these aspects in a story. Do you reveal enough using these tools to build a clear picture in a reader’s mind about who this character is? Have you ever written something and thought the characters fell flat? It could be the case that one or more of the elements above is lacking.
Next time, I’ll share about how writers can use indirect characterization to give the reader information and create additional depth to characters.
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Holley Cornetto was born and raised in Alabama, but now lives in New Jersey where she writes dark fantasy, horror, and weird fiction. To date, her writing appears in over a dozen magazines and anthologies. To indulge her love of books and stories, she became a librarian. She is also a writer, because the only thing better than being surrounded by stories is to create them herself. In 2021, she earned an MFA in fiction writing from Lindenwood University. She is a proud member of the Horror Writers Association.