In this post, we define characterisation, look at direct characterisation and indirect characterisation, and ask which one authors should use.
What Is Characterisation?
Characterisation is how authors create and describe a character’s looks and personality. It includes describing the way they speak, their looks (physical attributes), their attitudes and world views, their thoughts, their body language, their actions and reactions, their strengths and their flaws, and their motivations. Authors can use direct and indirect characterisation to do this.
[TOP TIP: Fill in a detailed character questionnaire for your main characters.]
Why Is Characterisation Important?
Stories are about characters. They drive a plot from the beginning, through the middle, to the end. If your main characters don’t feel real, readers will abandon the story. Characters come from somewhere, they have a backstory, and they are going somewhere. Readers love to empathise with characters (especially the protagonist) and they need to feel connected to them. They also need to understand their motivations.
What Is Direct And Indirect Characterisation?
Direct Characterisation Tells
Direct characterisation is when an author tells the reader what a character is like. The author can describe the person or use another character to do it for them. This other character could think about the character or talk about the character. If you are writing in first person, characters could describe themselves.
This is also known as explicit characterisation.
- Gertrude was tall, whippet-thin, and angry. Her strawberry blonde hair was trapped in its usual tight chignon.
- He always knew Charles was stupid, but even he was surprised by his latest antics.
- ‘Steven is perfect in his own eyes’, she said. ‘Everyone else hates him.’
- I glanced up and caught a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror. When had I become so pale? Were the lines around my eyes always this deep?
[Suggested reading: 5 Instances When You Need To Tell]
Indirect Characterisation Shows
Indirect characterisation is when an author shows the reader what a character is like. The author does this through a character’s words (dialogue), actions and reactions, body language, activities, and thoughts. Dialogue is particularly useful with this. Authors can show a character through their choice of words (class, education) as well as what they actually say, and what they don’t say.
This is also known as implicit characterisation.
- ‘I want to see the manager now! Do you know who I am?’ he asked.
- Delia slumped into her chair, clutching the straight flush to her chest. She wanted to disappear, even when she played cards with her friends.
- Gary strolled along the path, his eyes trained on the twins. He wondered when he would have time for himself again. Emma was not the mother he had imagined she would be. He pulled at his collar. It felt too tight, claustrophobic like his life.
- ‘Look after your sisters, Alex.’ She always said that as if he had nothing better to do. Just because he was the oldest. ‘Yes, Ma,’ he always answered. He waited until she closed the door and then pinched them both. He smiled as tears welled up in their eyes.
[Suggested reading: 5 Incredibly Simple Ways To Help Writers Show And Not Tell]
Which One Should I Use?
You should use both. Sometimes, we need to tell. It’s easier to tell readers that your character is a physiotherapist than asking them to guess their occupation. Sometimes, we need to show. It’s more compelling to show what the character does each day in the course of this occupation.
You will create a rounded character if you include both types of characterisation in your stories.
You should have more indirect characterisation though. Readers like to draw their own conclusions by reading about your characters’ feelings, manners, thoughts, actions, body language, traits, and world views. You can’t spend the entire novel telling your readers that Jane is arrogant, but you can show it.
© Amanda Patterson
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