Skill 4.9: Direct and Indirect Characterization


Direct characterization (this is telling—don’t do it unless there is a great reason): the author directly states the temperament, mien or personality traits of a character.

Examples from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll: “[Alice] was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

It was all very well to say `Drink me,’ but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry.


Indirect characterization (better): Alice sighed and closed her boring book.

Example: `No, I’ll look first,’ she said, `and see whether it’s marked “poison” or not’; for she had read several nice little histories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts and other unpleasant things, all because they would not remember the simple rules their friends had taught them: such as, that a red-hot poker will burn you if you hold it too long; and that if you cut your finger very deeply with a knife, it usually bleeds; and she had never forgotten that, if you drink much from a bottle marked `poison,’ it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later.

However, this bottle was not marked `poison,’ so Alice ventured to taste it, and finding it very nice, (it had, in fact, a sort of mixed flavour of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast,) she very soon finished it off.


In the above example, I learn Alice’s traits through her dialogue, actions and thoughts—I understand that she is cautious. The author does not tell me that Alice is “cautious.” She also listens to the advice given to her and has a quick mind to remember it, but she may not always heed that advice, which makes her adventuresome and daring. If the bottle is not “marked” poison, she’s going to drink it—no matter the consequences. It is better to “show” the character’s traits indirectly.


Go to Skill 4.10: Story Structure Styles

Speak Your Mind