Write Better, Right Now #5

Indirect and Direct Characterization

Write Better, Right Now is a weekly post about getting writers to understand deeper writing strategies to take their stories to the next level. For writers looking for open pitch calls, writing jobs, and challenges to grow their career and craft, check out last week’s 1-2-3 Publish post!

Write Better, Right Now’s topics for February:

  • Indirect and Direct Characterization (2/7) [delayed due to family emergency]
  • Character Action (2/14)
  • Interior World of Characters (2/21)
  • Physically Describing Our Characters (2/28)

To kick our month of characterization off, I thought it’d be helpful to do our first topic on indirect and direct characterization—a common but often overlooked aspect of creating a character on the page. Many authors I work with rely on direct characterization to craft their characters on the page while leaving indirect characterization on the shelf.

Direct characterization:

“Tory was a tall boy.”

Yes, now we know a character is tall, but what else? Indirect characterization allows us, writers, to tell our readers more than what our characters look like. We can show our readers who our characters are beneath the surface and within their world.

Indirect characterization:

“Slouching beside his classmates, Tory attempted to make his body fit into the standardized form of everyone else.”

With the second line, we get a sense that the character may have been bullied or teased about his height to the point where he tries to fit in the best he can. It also provides a bit of conflict and paints more of a picture of who Tory is. Neither way is better or worse, but they each do different things and provide a much-needed rhythm to our stories and characters when used together and deliberately. What do you want to tell and what do you want to show?


Example

So it’s now, here in the front hall of Sue’s place, that I’m really meeting her for the first time. She’s compact and beautiful and has none of her daughter’s nervous energy.

Sue is also a hugger — another thing she doesn’t share with Fiona, who is by all metrics a tough nut to crack. I still don’t know much about her. She wants to be a defense lawyer. She used to be a professional dancer. She bites her nails when she’s listening intently. Her nostrils flare when she’s excited.

Mohan Fitzgerald ‘The River Corrib’

Let’s get into it more below!


Techniques

Taking a look at direct characterization again, we see it as a moment when a writer directly states who their character is instead of indirectly characterizing them through outside factors. Indirect characterization can come when a writer shows:

  • the character’s inner world through their thoughts, actions, and dialogue
  • other characters or aspects of the world reacting to the character
  • the character reacting to events and moments throughout the story

The job of the writer is to decide when they want to use direct or indirect characterization for their characters. For most situations, writers will use direct characterization during moments they want to quickly convey information about their character. Indirect characterization is usually reserved for the longer scenes and beats throughout the story where the writer wants to show more character depth and expression.

Other writers like to use direct characterization whenever they introduce their characters. This allows for them to easily convey details of their character to their reader. Indirect characterization is then used for all other moments throughout the story.

Ultimately, it is up to you to decide where to use these two pertinent aspects of characterization.

But I do stress not to rely on just one type. Instead, build your characters on the page in many ways, showing their wide and deep depth. This will also allow you to create moments of conflict, intrigue, and high emotion for your reader.


Exercise

Pick a recently published book or short story. It can be in your genre or a comp title to your current work in progress. With two different colors, highlight all the lines that use either indirect or direct characterization.

Make note of when the writer uses both. What does each bring to the atmosphere, tone, and story? For moments when the characterization really knocks you out. Copy the line(s) down and dissect what techniques the author used to craft the direct or indirect characterization.


Resources

  1. Direct Characterization vs Indirect Characterization
  2. Tips and Examples of Direct and Indirect Characterization
  3. Understanding Characterization through Frozen
  4. Lesson on Direct and Indirect Characterization

Write Better, Right Now’s topics from January:


If you were able to learn something new today, consider subscribing below to At Home Pro Writers to continue getting writing advicelinks to open pitch callsultimate writing guides, and more. Or check out the writing and editing masterclasses I offer! And if you need a stellar creative writer or editor, let me know while my calendar is still open.

Please don’t forget to leave a comment and tell me your thoughts on indirect and direct characterization or how you use them in your writing! Catch you, next week for our Write Better, Right Now post on character action.

8 thoughts on “Write Better, Right Now #5”

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