How do Authors Use Direct Characterization in a Story?

How do Authors Use Direct Characterization in a Story?

By Melody E. McIntyre


Characters are the heart of any story and characterization is how authors tell us who those characters are. The methods authors use fall into two broad categories: direct and indirect. Direct is when an author tells you something about their character such as “she is smart”. Indirect characterization presents the same information, but through the character’s actions or dialogue instead of outright stating it. This can also be phrased another way, show vs. tell. 

One of the most common pieces of writing advice is to avoid “telling” in favour of “showing”, and often this is true. However, to develop strong, relatable characters, it’s important for essay writers to know how to use both styles in their fiction, a skill that can help you master. 

Indirect Characterization

Indirect characterization describes a character through their actions, thoughts, or dialogue. A hero shows bravery by rushing into danger to protect others, as opposed to the author simply writing “the hero is brave”. This informs the reader while also being engaging and dynamic. Here is a simple, but wonderful example from C. S. Lewis’ ’Til We Have Faces, one of my favourite books:

“As the shears snipped and Redival’s curls fell off, the slaves said, ‘Oh, what a pity! All the gold gone!’ They had not said anything like that while I was being shorn.”

Lewis could have easily written something like: “My sister, Redival, is pretty with golden curls and I am not pretty.” It would still get the point across but is less engaging.


Direct Characterization

If indirect characterization is more interesting, why would anyone ever use direct characterization? 

Expediency. Showing every aspect of a character takes up narrative space and reader attention. Particularly in shorter fiction, writers have a limited window to get their story across. And sometimes it’s just not practical. Telling the reader that a character has blue eyes is simpler than figuring out how to demonstrate it.

Another reason is clarity. When writing for younger readers, being direct is easier to follow. One of my favourite series growing up was the Baby-Sitters Club. I devoured these books, and I knew that chapter two was always the one that described all the girls. The books would demonstrate character traits indirectly but spelling out the details of each girl’s personality helped me as a young reader understand and relate to them. Also, it eliminated the need to read each book in order and allowed readers to focus on the books that interested them more, but still be able to know what to expect from each character.


A combination of both indirect and direct characterization is, I feel, the best approach. For an example that uses both, I return to ’Til We Have Faces and its opening paragraph:

“I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods. I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend, through whom they cannot hurt me. My body, this lean carrion that still has to be washed and fed and have clothes hung about it daily with so many changes, they may kill as soon as they please.”

Along with directly telling us that the narrator is old, lean, and without a husband, child or friend, Lewis tells us much more about her. The way she describes her body as a burden that must be cared for speaks to her mental state. This is a woman who has suffered and is indifferent to her own fate.

I encourage you to examine the work of writers that has worked for you, and the work that has not. Look at where they have chosen to demonstrate character traits vs. simply describing them and ask yourself why you think that choice was made.

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