At this point in the internet’s collective knowledge of writing, it’s agreed upon that writing strong characters is important. The good news is, this means most writers do a good job of developing their characters. The bad news is that they don’t use indirect characterization, which is the best way to show who those characters are.
The entire difference between a good writer (and future author) and someone who writes is the level of engagement and entertainment the writing has to offer. If you really want to hook a reader’s attention and give them something of quality to read, indirect characterization is something you’ll want to use.
What is indirect characterization?
Indirect characterization is when you show the reader who the character is through any other means besides simply telling the reader, including with dialogue, actions, and descriptions of appearance.
Basically, instead of saying that a character is mean, you will craft your writing in such a way that the reader will conclude that information about the character, without you ever having to state it. This is basically the art of showing instead of telling but specific to the characters within your story.
Can you never use direct characterization?
On the other side of indirect characterization is the direct kind. With this, when introduced to new characters, you would just tell the reader their qualities. So in this case, you would write, “Richard was a mean man,” instead of allowing the readers to deduce as much.
I used to do this a lot in my early writing, but then after the direct characterization, I would write out the indirect kind. Many writers will get to this point, so you may just have to comb through when self-editing your draft and remove the direct characterization.
So can you never use this? We never say never when it comes to writing “rules” because there’s a time and a place for everything.
For example, if a character is unimportant but you still want the reader to understand who they are, direct characterization comes in handy.
Let’s say your main character is talking to an old friend who mentions their previous school teacher. While both characters know who this teacher is, the reader doesn’t. So creating a pause in the other character’s dialogue about the school teacher to write the sentence, “Mrs. Richards was a mean old shrew who had love for nothing but the scraggly bird she kept locked in a cage,” is a great use of direct characterization.
Now, it your main character had to actually interact with Mrs. Richards, we would use indirect characterization, and I’ll share an example if that were the case as #1 below.
Examples of Direct vs Indirect Characterization
One of the best ways to learn any writing technique is with examples. I’ll list a bunch of them for you below, but remember that this doesn’t compare to reading a lot and understanding how other authors do this in their own writing.
Clara needed to hurry or she’d be late. Again. And Mrs. Richards was a mean old shrew who had love for nothing but the scraggly bird she kept locked in a cage. Surely, she’d be sent to the principal’s office if she didn’t make it.
Clara hurried through the double doors of the building, sweat already ruining her new blouse. She pushed her now-frizzy hair out of the way and tried her best to silently slink into Mrs. Richards’s class. But of course, the old woman caught her.
A sneer twisted Mrs. Richard’s face. “And just what do you think you’re doing?”
“I—well,” Clara starts, out of breath. “I’m sorry I’m late, Mrs. Rich—”
“Go to the principal’s office,” the teacher spat.
“But today is—”
“To the office!” The old woman’s eyes were hard—unyielding—and she had a wrinkled, crooked finger pointed toward the door.
Clara turned on her heel and slumped from the room, but just before she crossed the threshold she heard Mrs. Richards coo to the cockatoo swatting its wings in its cage, wishing she could borrow some of the benevolence her teacher seemed to only reserve for the animal.
As you can see, there are a lot more words to the indirect characterization because we also have to do this for Clara. But specifically with Mrs. Richards, you can get the sense of what she’s like starting with Clara trying to be quiet while entering the room. Then through the dialogue and even the dialogue tags, we get an understanding for how she talks. At the end, it’s clear that the teacher can flip a switch when it comes to the bird.
Ricardo peeked through the window and saw Shelly. He didn’t want to go inside anymore. Shelly, while able to make the best cappuccinos around, was an overly chatty, bubbly person who couldn’t seem to keep her mouth shut. With his current mood, that was the last thing he needed. But now his mouth was already watering with the thought of her cappuccino.
Ricardo peeked through the window and groaned. Shelly was working today. He turned away and bit the inside of his cheek unconsciously, thinking. He needed caffeine, yes. But was Shelly’s cappuccino worth what he’d have to deal with once in there? In his current mood?
He decided it was.
Bracing himself, Ricardo let out a sigh and plunged into the coffee shop on sixth, relishing in the cool air blasting past him.
“Ricky!” Shelly beamed from over another customer’s head. “Ricky I was just talking about you! Wasn’t I, Adam?” She plopped a cup in front of who was surely Adam and thanked the man for his service, continuing without a breath, “I was just telling him that you have those really cool digital art pieces, the ones with the colors and the outlines—sometimes stars, too—and he was saying that he knows this guy who works uptown who owns a shop and—oh, sorry! You want coffee? The usual cappuccino?”
He nodded and dropped his head, taking far longer than necessary to fish for the proper change in his wallet while Shelly droned on.
“And the shop even has work by Mando Manka! Can you believe it? Anyway, it’s so funny that you just happened to walk in right after I was talking about you.” Ricardo looked up and Shelly was foaming the milk. “I mean what are the odds, right? Oh crap. I should have grabbed done of his cards for you.”
Ricardo placed the change on the counter as Shelly returned with the cappuccino.
“Sorry about that. But hey! I’ll remember to ask him when he comes in next. He said he’ll be on this side of town for the next few days. Maybe you’ll come in right after him again! Wouldn’t that be crazy?”
“It would,” Ricardo muttered, taking the cup. “Thank you.”
“Sure thing! Thanks again. See you soon, Ricky—oh! And tell Leo I said hi! He hasn’t come to see me in a minute and I’m about two days away from being offended by it.”
Ricardo, nodding, walked back through the doors and took a sigh, lifting the cappuccino to his lips. Damn, if that sip wasn’t worth it.
Two characters are being shown here. Both Ricardo and Shelly are vivid in the reader’s mind with the indirect characterization. Is the direct one okay? Sure! But it won’t craft an image in the reader’s mind. It’s too easy. Readers want to work to see a picture and translate its meaning for themselves, which is what the indirect characterization does here.
Raj was in love with Lauren.
Raj lifted his hooked nose into the air, inhaling deeply and sighing audibly. Lauren was finally in the room. He didn’t need to turn around to tell. He didn’t want to appear too eager. But regardless, the room was suddenly warmer, the air carrying a sweet scent he’d learned was made up of lilies, Lauren’s favorite flower, and vanilla, her favorite flavor. Somehow Raj felt lighter than he had a moment ago, and as he turned to confirm that the brown-haired girl with bouncing ringlet curls did indeed enter the room, he held tighter to his desk, lest he be lifted all the way to the ceiling, because on this day, the fifteenth of November of 1973, Lauren Porrinsky was wearing that red sweater.
Without even using the word love, we know that Raj is in love with her. Or rather, infatuated with her, which if you knew how old Raj was in this sample I just made up on the fly (he’s 13), those two things feel exactly the same. There are other subtleties here that play into the symbolism of love (warmth, the color red), but you wouldn’t even need those to understand that Raj’s entire consciousness is revolving around Lauren in this scene.
Methods of Using Indirect Characterization in Writing
The entire point of indirect characterization is to write something that makes the reader guess the conclusion.
Clara never needs to call Mrs. Richards a mean old shrew, because the writing allows the reader to assume that.
Ricardo never needs to tell us that Shelly will talk your ear off and it’s exhausting, because the reader will feel that by reading her dialogue.
Raj never needs to say he loves Lauren because it’s painfully obvious that he’s a little bit obsessed with her.
But what do all of these examples of direct versus indirect characterization use? Emotions and scenarios that most of us have experienced before. That’s the key to good storytelling in general, but especially as you showcase your character development.
Now, there are many ways you can show this type of characterization. Above I used dialogue to showcase Shelly’s characterization as well as Mrs. Richards. But for Raj, I used a different method.
Usually, you’ll use a combination of many methods that are outlined below.
The way someone talks says a lot about who they are. There are a lot of dialogue writing tips out there, but for indirect characterization, you’ll want to think about the following:
- do they ramble in run-on sentences, speak concisely, or are in a middle ground?
- do they use complex vocabulary or simple terms?
- do they start sentences fully or drop the beginnings? (example: “Are you okay?” vs “You okay?”)
- do they use contractions or speak with full words? (can’t vs cannot and don’t vs do not)
These are baselines but there are many more. Open a book or pick up the one you’re reading and see if you can identify the “rules” of dialogue for various characters. Most writers end up doing this subconsiously when they have enough experience, but it might be helpful for you to actually write down rules for each character.
For example, I have a character who tends to answer questions with another question. So her dialogue (Shreiy) might sound like this:
“What is it you do in this castle, anyway?” Torryn looked around the empty room, noting the lack of, well, anything.
“What does it look like?” Shreiy scoffed.
“There you have it,” Shreiy grumbled, swinging the bottle of wine in her precarious grip.
Torryn lifted a brow. So she didn’t technically work in the castle, yet she seemed to be able to go about doing whatever she wanted. She wasn’t a relative of the Riegn or Heir, either.
“Then why does everyone treat you like you’re important?”
“What do you mean by important?” Shreiy lifted the bottle to her lips and plopped onto the lushly upholstered sofa.
“I mean,” Torryn sat beside her, taking the bottle for herself, “how is it you just so happened to snag the good wine from the Reign’s own chamberhand?” She took a sip, resisting the urge to groan. It was the good stuff.
The question was waved away with a lazy hand. “That boy is just simple minded.”
“Simple minded?” Torryn passed the bottle back.
“You know what it means, yes?”
“I know what it means, Shreiy.”
There are definitely situations in which this character wouldn’t only answer questions with questions, but it does work to showcase that this character is not one to divulge much about herself.
What are your character’s qualities? How can you use that to indirectly characterize them through their dialogue?
Just like a character’s speech tells you a lot about them, so does what they look like. Depending on your level of worldbuilding, this can be taken to more extreme lengths and I’ll explain that below.
But first, here are some things to consider about indirect characterization as it relates to appearance:
- are they well-kempt and manicured or have a lazier method to their appearance?
- do they only wear certain types of clothing or colors?
- are they tanned or fair (outdoor working class vs non-laboring)?
- are they fashionable or mismatched?
- do they don a specific expression, even if they don’t mean to?
Now, the world of my book is an entirely unique world with its own cultures and customs. In one of the settings the story takes place, the culture has a quality of wearing their hair up. It’s never down except to sleep and is very taboo to wear your hair down because it means you’re a certain type of person. The only exception is that people who are single and unmatched wear one piece of hair dangling down over their left shoulder. This signifies their partnership status, and that it’s okay to approach them if they have that section down.
What can you include in your culture or world that showcases something about characters depending on how they look?
3. Viewpoint Thoughts
This has to do with the character’s eyes that are telling the story and the thoughts they’re having about other characters. In the example above with Raj, this is his viewpoint thoughts. It’s clear how he feels about Lauren because of how he’s thinking, which is written in the narrative.
This is much easier to do in first person point of view and happens naturally. Just remember that the viewpoint character might not have an unbiased view of certain characters. And you can use that!
For example: How might Raj describe another male character who’s interacting very closely with Lauren? He might have thoughts (narrative) about this character that makes him seem like an unsavory person. But then you can later write that same character performing a kind act for Raj, in which case we will see more of Raj’s characterization and the other male’s because actions are yet another way to do indirect characterization.
What can make your fiction even more interesting is if you write multiple perspectives and each character has a very different opinion of the other—a wrong opinion, even. This causes tension that makes the reader eager to see them both realize their mistakes.
What a character chooses to do is incredibly revealing of them. In the example above with Raj and the idea of another character showing him kindness, despite Raj’s inner thoughts being unsavory tells us what the truth of that other male character is.
Or truth, as he wants us to see it. It would be the consistency of that trait revealed again and again that would show us he is truly kind. Remember that!
If a character is only acting nice at certain times and not at others, this action shows us more about their motive than anything else. There’s a great example of actions showing character in Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris.
In this story, there’s a character named Sarene who arrives in lands that are much different than her own. In her country, women are respected the same as men and held in the same regard. But in this new country, women are looked down upon, often as being unintelligent. Now, Sarene is very smart, but when she’s around the King, she acts incredibly dumb.
This dichotomy shows us more about Sarene’s motives. If we were to read the book from the King’s perspective, we might see Sarene as a dumb girl who doesn’t have a clue. This is how you can use actions to shape character.
Just remember: repeated actions will make a reader believe that is the truth of the character. It’s the consistency that shows us, and if there is a consistent change in a character, this is what allows them to grow and complete a character arc. So use actions in your indirect characterization well!
Indirect characterization is a strong way of doing any storytelling. The more you can show the readers and allow them to deduce what you want, the better and stronger your writing will be.