Direct Characterization: A Fantastic Way to Entice Readers

Posted on Apr 19, 2024

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Written by Sarah Rexford

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Many of the authors behind the classics you know and love today used direct characterization to establish their characters. While readers don’t have the attention span for excessive description today, there is still a place for this type of characterization in your fiction.

In fact, direct characterization allows you, the author, to act as a detective as you write your story. After all, you are the one in charge of wrapping up the plot and you know how you’re going to do so. 

Using this type of characterization is a way to engage your readers in the details they need to know now, while still leaving room for nuance and ambiguity. 

When you use this tool, you present your readers with must-know information without filling pages with unnecessary prose. In this article, I show you what direct characterization is, how to use it, and famous examples. 

Direct characterization: what you will learn

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What is direct characterization? 

Direct characterization is one of many literary devices authors use to describe their characters by outright telling readers what they need to know. You may wonder about the “show, don’t tell” writing rule. How does this type of characterization work if writers are told to show their stories rather than state facts?

Directly stating characterization quickly brings readers up to speed on specific aspects they need to know. That said, you should only use this type of character description on an as-needed basis. Remember that the main goal of readers is to entertain themselves.

Sometimes the best way to entertain is to directly state a character’s key attributes, then move on into the tension of the story

Authors use direct characterization to jump-start character development that is immediately crucial for readers to know, or will be soon.

What are some examples?

An example of this type of characterization is to use adjectives and adverbs to quickly describe a character: “A very tall man, he walked with stooped shoulders yet a focused gaze.” Let’s look at a few literary examples for concrete examples.

Before you read through the below examples, prep yourself to notice the following: 

  • Which physical traits does the author draw readers’ attention to? 
  • How does the author use the surrounding prose to influence their descriptors? 
  • What does the author leave out? 

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: N.K. Jemison

“His long, long hair wafted around him like black smoke, its tendrils curling and moving of their own volition. His cloak—or perhaps that was his hair too—shifted as if in an unfelt wind.” 

A Gentleman In Moscow: Amore Towles

“The Count walked briskly on, his waxed moustaches spread like the wings of a gull… Though strapping lads, both of the soldiers had to look up from under their caps to return the Count’s gaze—for like ten generations of Rostov men, the Count stood an easy six foot three.”

The Great Gatsby: F. Scott Fitzgerald

“He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.”

An example of direct characterization in Lord Of The Flies

Before moving on, let’s look at one more iconic example: Lord Of The Flies by William Golding.

“Inside the floating cloak he was tall, thin, and bony; and his hair was red beneath the black cap. His face was crumpled and freckled, and ugly without silliness.”

Read the above sentences again, then answer the following questions:

  • How does direct characterization impact your understanding of the character?
  • How does Goulding use his unique writing voice to describe his character? 
  • What tone does his description communicate to the reader?

But what if you find you need to allude to a characteristic without outright telling the reader about it? This is where indirect characterization comes in.

What is an example of direct and indirect characterization?

The opposite of direct characterization is when an author uses indirect characterization to hint at a character’s traits

They often use the following to do so: 

  • Actions or lack of actions
    • Example: “I stooped so as not to hit my head on the doorframe.” 
  • Writing dialogue between the protagonist and another character, or characters about the protagonist
    • Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me, and I am in no humor at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.” 
  • Inner thoughts of the character
    • Example: Maybe if I make it through training people will finally think of me as brave and strong.

Use the above examples to help you learn how to use both direct and indirect characterization, the key to creating memorable characters.

5 tips for direct characterization 

Whether you need to quickly establish your sage archetypes or alert your readers that they are about to meet your villain, here are tips to help you master direct characterization. 

1. Determine what matters most

If you choose to use direct characterization for your protagonist, ask yourself which characteristics matter most. 

Just as you don’t want to introduce too many supporting characters in the first pages, you don’t want to overwhelm your readers with paragraphs describing your character.

Identify which characteristics matter most and use direct characterization to state them.

2. Choose your descriptors carefully

Just because you decide to use direct characterization doesn’t mean you should resort to filling your prose with fluff. Choose the best descriptors and edit all others out. 

3. Remember your audience

Adult readers usually have more patience for description than young adult or middle grade readers. Take care to remember who will read your work and incorporate your direct characterization accordingly. 

4. Ask, is this necessary?

Sometimes quickly stating a fact about a character matters. At other times it’s better to use ambiguity to draw your reader into the story.

Before using direct characterization, consider how indirect characterization would impact your plot. 

For instance, should your readers immediately know your hero is a former nurse even though he is vacationing in the Bahamas? Or is it better to leave this detail out until someone needs medical assistance later in the book? Should you allude to his current day job instead?

5. Maintain integrity to your voice

There are so many ways to employ direct characterization. The direct characterization in A Gentleman In Moscow reflects Towles’ unique voice. William Goulding’s characterization accomplishes the same task, stating characteristics directly to the reader, but in a tone aligned with his voice. 

Any author can use this direct or indirect characterization. However, make sure you write in your voice, no matter what literary device or writing tool you use. 

The next step on your author journey

Part of using characterization well is knowing the key attributes of your characters. To help you quickly identify the specifics of your hero, villain, and supporting characters, use the free resource below. Happy character development!

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