Indirect Characterization in To Kill a Mockingbird

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  • 1:15 Atticus Finch
  • 2:37 Jem Finch
  • 4:27 Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Janette Nikolakopoulos
In this lesson, we'll take a look at how the author Harper Lee employs indirect characterization to convey the personalities of Atticus Finch and Jem Finch in 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'

Indirect vs. Direct Characterization

Have you heard of the writing adage, 'Show, don't tell'? This writing guideline is taught because, well, writing is typically more interesting if it's showing and not telling. Consider the following sentence in a story:

Mark is a considerate person.

When the narrator simply tells the reader something about the character, this is direct characterization. How does the writing change if the narrator says this instead?

Unbeknownst to the seated woman, her cardigan has fallen to the ground. Mark carefully picks it up, shakes off the dust, and gently returns it to the back of her chair.

When the narrator shows the reader a character's traits, this is indirect characterization. There's no right or wrong method, and authors can and do employ both types of characterization to create nuanced pictures of their characters. So, you be the judge about which one you prefer.

Now, we'll explore indirect characterization in greater detail by looking at how Harper Lee uses it in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Indirect Characterization: Atticus Finch

While an author or narrator may decide to simply tell key personality traits of the characters, he or she will often show these traits through the following methods of indirect characterization:

1. The character's actions
2. The character's spoken and unspoken thoughts
3. The character's physical characteristics
4. Reactions from other characters

Let's take a look at Atticus Finch. For each example, we'll see the associated personality trait it exemplifies.

1. He shoots a rabid dog (this action shows his courage).
2. He says: 'You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it' (this dialogue shows his lack of prejudice).
3. He says: 'Besides that, he wore glasses. He was nearly blind in his left eye, and said left eyes were the tribal curse of the Finches. Whenever he wanted to see something well, he turned his head and looked from his right eye' (this description shows his physical characteristics).
4. Miss Maudie Atkinson, a neighbor, says: 'He's the same in the courtroom as he is on the public streets' (this dialogue shows his integrity).

Indirect Characterization: Jem Finch

Methods of characterization become even more important when the author needs to show a character's growth. Let's take a look at Atticus's son, Jem Finch. Jem grows from a game-playing child to a mature teenager questioning and struggling with the hypocrisies of the adults around him. His actions and words show the evolution of his maturity.

At first, Jem perpetuates the rumors and superstitions surrounding the Radley household:

Jem gave a reasonable description of Boo: Boo was about six-and-a-half feet tall, judging from his tracks; he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that's why his hands were bloodstained - if you ate an animal raw, you could never wash the blood off.

In telling Atticus that Dill has run away from home, Jem shows the ability to weigh the consequences of a secret:

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