Indirect Characterization: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Defining Indirect…
  • 0:52 Indirect Vs. Direct…
  • 2:11 5 Methods of Indirect…
  • 2:50 Examples of Indirect…
  • 5:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kara Wilson

Kara Wilson is a 6th-12th grade English and Drama teacher. She has a B.A. in Literature and an M.Ed, both of which she earned from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

In children's stories, the author might directly describe a character as either 'evil' or 'kind-hearted.' But in more advanced works, the author usually describes how characters behave to show their personality. This is an example of indirect characterization, which is the focus of this lesson.

Defining Indirect Characterization

Indirect characterization is the process by which the writer shows the character's personality through speech, actions and appearance. When you watch a movie or television show, you can usually gather what type of person the main character is based on the character's actions and reactions in different situations. There isn't a label on the screen that necessarily says 'angelic, gullible teen' or 'selfish, arrogant villain.' Instead, you have to watch and listen to that person to notice how the character's personality is revealed through the story. By doing so, you are seeing how indirect characterization is being used on the screen. This also occurs in many novels and short stories. Instead of watching the character, you imagine the character in your head as you read descriptions of the actions and dialogue.

Indirect vs. Direct Characterizations

Indirect characterization should not be confused with direct characterization, which is when the reader or audience is told what the character's personality is. The well-known phrase 'show, don't tell' can apply to indirect vs. direct characterization. Indirect characterization shows who a character is based on what he/she does and says, while direct characterization tells the reader or audience exactly what type of person that character is.

Read the following excerpt from 'Rip Van Winkle' by Washington Irving: 'He was a simple, good-natured man; he was moreover a kind neighbor and an obedient, henpecked husband.' This description directly tells the reader about this man's personality using words like simple, good-natured, kind and obedient. There is nothing left for you to infer or conclude on your own. Therefore, this excerpt is an example of direct characterization. If Irving were to use indirect characterization in this description, perhaps he would've described a scene in which the man was calmly helping some rambunctious children cross the street or happily strolling through town, waving at people of all ages. The reader would then have to conclude that he was a kind, good-natured man without the writer ever having told him/her so.

The Five Methods of Indirect Characterization

To remember the five methods of indirect characterization, think of the word STEAL. It stands for the five methods:

  1. Speech: What does the character say and how does he/she speak?
  2. Thoughts: What is shown about the character through his/her private thoughts and feelings?
  3. Effect: What effect does the character have on other people? How do they feel or react to him/her?
  4. Actions: What does the character do? How does the character act in different situations?
  5. Looks: What does the character's appearance say about his/her personality?

Examples of Indirect Characterization

If a mother calmly tells her son it's time for bed and he responds by saying, 'No, I don't have to do what you say! I'm staying up all night!' then we can infer that this young boy is angry, obstinate and may have authority issues. The author is not telling us directly what type of personality the boy has; instead, we must decide this based on the author's use of speech.

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