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Direct and Indirect Characterization Definition

One of the concepts I wanted more clarity on when I started writing was around direct characterization versus indirect characterization, and to make sure I was using them properly.  Well, actually the first thing I needed to know was the exact definition of direct and indirect characterization. In the rest of this article, I will answer that and much more.

What is the Definition of Characterization?

First, let’s start with what is the definition of Characterization? Characterization is the process by which an author reveals the characters physical attributes and personality.

Works that have poor characterization are often criticized for having flat or undeveloped characters. Proper characterization is very important if you want to give your characters depth. You don’t want to be left with “stock characters” or characters that seem like they haven’t been fully flushed out.  This is a sure fire way to leave your readers unsatisfied and unhappy.

Writers have two methods of characterization- Direct and Indirect. Below we will look at Direct vs Indirect Characterization and how you can use both techniques you can use as a writer.

What is the Definition of Direct Characterization?

So, what is the definition of Direct Characterization? The Definition of Direct Characterization is when an author directly tells the reader what a character’s personality is through descriptive adjectives,  phrases, or epithets. 

What is the Definition of Indirect Characterization?

So, What is the Definition of Indirect Characterization? The Definition of Indirect Characterization shows the readers what the character’s personality is through speech, actions, thoughts.

How do Writers Use Direct Characterization in a Story?

Let’s take a closer look at how you can use direct characterization in your story.

First, let’s explore some of the advantages of using direct characterization in your writing.

  • Direct characterization is a very economical way to establish a character’s personality traits.
  • It allows the writer to establish the most important aspects of a character quickly when an expeditious introduction is optimal.

Second, make sure you don’t overdo the use of Direct Characterization in your novel. While it’s tempting due its convenience, you risk taking the wind out of your character’s wings, as well as your readers.

Remember one of the most important and entertaining aspects of reading is the journey of discovering each of the characters deeply as the story progresses.  If you use too much direct characterization, you may take some of that joy out of your reader’s experience and leave your characters feeling like shallow mockups of character outlines.

How do Writers Use Indirect Characterization in Their Writing?

Let’s take a look at indirect characterization and how to use this more nuanced approach to revealing your characters.

  • While direct characterization works great to move the story forward quickly and has its place when used properly, indirect characterization works to pull your readers into the story.
  • It helps them engage more closely with the characters while feeling like they are experiencing your character’s traits first hand as they are revealed one by one.
  • Indirect characterization falls within “showing” while Direct characterization falls within the spectrum of “telling”

There are 5 mechanisms an author can use to show a character’s personality using the indirect characterization method. They make up the acronym S.T.E.A.L.

  1. Speech 
  2. Thoughts 
  3. Effects
  4. Actions
  5. Looks 

Use the Achronym S.T.E.A.L to remember the 5 mechanisms you have at your disposal through indirect characterization.

Here is a brief definition for each part of S.T.E.A.L in indirect characterization.

  1. SPEECH: This is what your characters say and how they say it, or more broadly how they talk.
  2. THOUGHTS: What is revealed through your characters inner thoughts and feelings.
  3. EFFECT: What effect does your character have on other people
  4. ACTIONS: What does your character do? More importantly, how do they act when put into certain situations. Just like people, no 2 well-developed characters would react to a situation exactly the same.
  5. Looks: What does the character’s appearance say about the characters personality.

Examples of Direct Characterization

Here are some examples of Direct Characterization:

  • “Mr. Wallace was known around town as an old curmudgeon.”
  • “Sally’s Type A personality made her a micromanager, and difficult to work for.”
  • “Tom was a misogynist who had problems working for women. “

As you can see in the examples above, the writer simply tells the reader how to view the character. There isn’t a lot of room for the reader to make their own opinion of the character, instead, they are introduced in a way that predisposes the reader to view the characters in a certain way.

Notice how the direct characterization method works incredibly well when it comes to saving words. This is a great method of characterization when you don’t want to take away from the action. It enables you to keep the pace of the novel moving.

Examples of Indirect Characterization

Let’s look at some indirect characterization examples of how we could rewrite the direct characterization above.

  • Mr. Wallace exited the corner store slowly, his balance looked precarious even with the use of his weathered cane, and the permanent scowl on his face was in full effect despite holding the door for him.
  • Sally made it clear during the meeting that all correspondence from our department needed to be signed off by her before going out. This included basic emails. One day I hope to get one through in under 5 revisions.”
  • Tom reluctantly took his assignment from Karen. He made it clear that he disagreed with the direction she gave, but ultimately it was her call. His overt eye roll made it obvious he thought she was over her head.

As you can see from the tweaked examples above. There is far more reading between the lines when it comes to the indirect characterization method. But it allows the writer to “show” instead of “tell” his readers what his characters are all about.

Review of How Writers Use Direct vs Indirect Characterization in their stories.

Both Direct and Indirect characterization have a place in your writing. You just have to be cognizant of what each accomplishes.

Once you recognize the pluses and minus of each as we have laid out above, you will have a much easier time mastering your characterizations moving forward.

Remember Direct characterization is considered more explicit characterization. While it takes far few words to establish your characters through the direct method, you risk losing the joy of having your readers make their own opinions about your characters.

That is why direct characterization is considered more “telling” and indirect characterization is considered “showing”

As writers, we are always being told to tell less and show more. The reason being, the more you show in your writing the more immersed your reader can get. This applies to characterization as well.

When you use indirect characterization the reader is asked to think about what the character and make their own opinions. This is a far greater impact on the reader. It will stick in your readers far longer if they have a visceral reaction to your character’s speech, thoughts, and actions versus simply being told what they should think about this character.

Remember you have 5 levers to pull when you are trying to establish indirect characterization. Use the acronym S.T.E.A.L to remember what those 5 methods are.


If you start developing your characters with those 5 methods in mind, you should be able to craft a fully developed character that is believable. You will be able to know exactly how your character will react in every situation, ensuring that you maintain credibility and consistency in your characters.

I hope this article has been helpful and answers your questions about direct and indirect characterizations moving forward. I know this was a topic I had to research when I started writing and hope this blog post saves you some time of doing the research yourself.

Thanks for Writing and Reading!