Direct Characterization

There are many ways to create a character for a reader.  Many writers stumble in and out of indirect characterization, which is where the writer takes on the omniscient narrator voice and “tells” us everything about the character that we should know.  In many respects, “telling” a reader what a character is all about is one of the problems of bad writing, and can cause the writer to quickly bore modern readers.

The other type of characterization is called direct characterization, which is made up of four basic parts: appearance, action, speech and thoughts.  This type of characterization are often given by another first person narrator or a third person limited narrator from the mind of the main character.

  1. Appearance – This method of direct characterization involves showing the reader what a character is like by describing what they look like.  This can be used to great advantage by the writer.  If a character is a shabby looking vagrant with dirty slacks and threadbare shirt, the reader might at first believe that the character is a homeless person, but later the fun for the reader might be to find out that this shabby looking vagrant might actually be a prince deposed by an evil Duke.  Without telling the reader, we have placed a presupposed thought in their mind about the character without “telling” them anything at all.
  2. Action – This method of direct characterization involves showing what a character does which then shows the reader a character’s personality.  The old adage “they will know you by your works” comes to mind.  Possibly there is something deeper that causes a character to act a certain way or do certain things.  This could be worth revealing as the story continues.
  3. Speech – This method of direct characterization involves showing the reader what the character says, and through that speech or the way they speak, the reader understands the personality of the character.  When I think of this method, I think of accents used, speech impediments that arise from odd childhood details, profanity, cultured dialogue, etc.  Think very carefully about how your characters sound.  Each character in my latest novel has a different sound, accent, and speech pattern.  They each use slang and jargon specific to their culture.
  4. Thoughts – This method of direct characterization involves showing the reader the character’s personality through their thought process.  This can be done through the voice of a first person or third person limited narrator, but is difficult to do when writing in a third person omniscient narrator.  The benefit of writing my latest novel the way I did (each chapter is a different character’s voice) was that I could reveal to the reader that a person was about to betray the group of survivors long before he actually did.  This created suspense that was not able to be achieved otherwise.  I was also able to tell the story through the eyes of others who didn’t necessarily see everything that transpired during a scene, which then left the reader with a puzzle to solve and speculation as to what really happened.  I clarified everything later, of course, but it was fun to cause them to experience some real mystery through character’s thoughts.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

6 thoughts on “Direct Characterization

  1. Great breakdown. Speech can be tricky. Sometimes I think I’m doing right by my characters, but then I’ll read it allowed and realize so-and-so wouldn’t use a certain word or construction, and I scrub it once more.

    This post is a handy, quick-and-ready blueprint for developing characters. I’ll be sure to refer back to it when I tackle my next ficton project. Thanks!

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