When it comes to writing a character, you have to get into their thoughts and words, even feelings, to make them tangible. Your character's personality traits matter. And they make up the indirect characterizations that deliver the essential part of being human.
So, what is indirect characterization? And how is it used in literature, film, and television?
Today, we'll define indirect characterization, juxtapose it with direct characterization, and look at some examples of the literary term in its use across mediums. Plus, we'll examine why this matters to screenwriters and filmmakers.
Sound good? Let's dive in.
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What Is Indirect Characterization? (Definition and Examples)
Indirect characterization is a literary device in which personal details about a character are revealed without explicitly stating them. The writer will show the characterization of the person in their actions, the way they speak, their thoughts, their appearance, and how other characters react to them.
It fulfills the old writing adage, "Show, don't tell."
Indirect Characterization Definition
Indirect characterization is when a writer reveals a character’s traits through actions, thoughts, and speech instead of stating them outright.
An indirect characterization synonym would be "implicit characterization." It is the opposite of direct characterization, in which the author states outright the traits of a character.
'Jackie Brown' her uniform tells us she's an airline worker without explaining it to us.Credit: Miramax
Types of Indirect Characterization
As we mentioned above, there are four main ways indirect characterization is provided to the reader.
The way your character talks can say a lot about them. Is it with an accent? Are they reserved? Or maybe they are assertive. Do they make demands? Or talk in short. Staccato. Sentences? Or maybe they speak in a flowy way. This all adds to a person.
Make their dialogue pop.
'The Newsroom'Credit: HBO
In literature, we can enter a character's brain and hear how their thoughts are laid out. Maybe they're paranoid or confident. Maybe they have deep inner thoughts, but when they talk, only a squeak comes out. We can learn so much by hearing the inner monologue of a person.
In movies and TV, this can be represented as voiceover.
'Fight Club'Credit: Fox
This is not just the way a character looks, but how they carry themselves. You can tell what they're wearing, but don't belabor it. We want to know if it's messy, chic. If they're a blue-collar worker. Do they carry themselves with a limp or maybe have an eye patch? What can we add that gives people the ability to visualize this person? And how do these visuals lead to understanding more about the way a person is and what goes on inside them?
'Mary Queen of Scots'Credit: Perfect World Pictures
A lot goes into action writing. You're talking about how and why someone acts the way they do. You can change this scene to scene as characters arc. In film and television, we're dealing with a visual medium. We want to see people doing things. Make them wash dishes in a scene or take out the garbage. We can learn a lot by seeing them struggle with trying to clean out a spot like Lady Macbeth.
'The Tragedy of Macbeth'Credit: Apple
Why do Writers Use Indirect Characterization?
You have the bookish definition, but what this really means is someone watching a movie or TV show at home receives information about the characters or plot not through someone saying something out loud, but by their actions on screen.
In layman's terms, it means watching a character doing something and understanding the story rather than having a character tell you that same thing. The audience understands it. Instead of a character saying, "I'm sad," they demonstrate that emotion through subtext or action. Instead of a character declaring, "I'm a firefighter," you show that character wearing firefighting gear or emerging from a blazing building.
In film and television, we're dealing with a visual medium. If you had characters standing around telling you lots of information, it would be boring. Or it would feel like a play. We like to see people moving, in action.
While dialogue that snaps is great, at the end of the day we should get most of the information told to us through someone's actions, and not their words.
'Rear Window'Credit: Paramount Pictures
Indirect Characterization and Direct Characterization
What's the main difference between direct and indirect characterization? Well, it comes down to the writer. If the writer tells something explicitly to the reader, it is direct. If the writer hints at it, it is indirect. In other words, direct characterization discloses, while indirect characterization displays.
Let’s say you want to explain that a character is generous and compassionate. If you wanted to do this directly, you would say, "Jason is a generous and compassionate man that everyone loves."
If you wanted to do this indirectly, you might say, "On his way home from work, Jason stopped in front of an unhoused man and gave him the cash in his pocket and the bag full of leftover McDonald's from lunch. Other people saw this and it warmed their hearts, but Jason walked straight ahead. He would have done it even if no one were looking."
See how those two things are the exact same thing, but done in two different ways?
'Black Panther'Credit: Disney
Indirect Characterization Examples in Literature
You can pick this kind of characterization in novels, poems, and even short stories. My favorite book of all time is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It has a ton of indirect characterization used to describe the town, the characters, and some situations.
Midway through the book, there is a housefire. Scout and her brother Jem are outside in the cold, watching everything happen. And there's this fun little line of indirect exposition about the kids when they ask who put the blanket around them. It reads, "Boo Radley. You were so busy looking at the fire you didn't know it when he put the blanket around you."
We completely understand how enraptured these kids were with the goings-on. And we also get a lot of who Boo is. A caring watcher there when they need him, but mostly a ghost.
One character who receives a ton of indirect work is their father, Atticus Finch.
'To Kill a Mockingbird'Credit: Universal Pictures
Atticus Finch and Indirect Characterization
Let's take a look at Atticus Finch and how the book tells us who he is without ever being completely explicit. Always indirect.
He shoots a rabid dog—revealing he was the best shot in town, but too humble to tell his kids about it.
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 in the book shows he speaks better than other people in town and that he has empathy for everyone, unlike many people around them.
He was described this way: "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 of his appearance shows us that he may have a lazy or blind eye. A vulnerability that an actor could play and that makes us like him more.
Miss Maudie Atkinson, a neighbor, says, "He's the same in the courtroom as he is on the public streets." Hear this and understand that this is a man of integrity wherever he goes.
All four of our indirect characterization strategies come into play here.
'To Kill a Mockingbird'Credit: Universal Pictures
Indirect Characterization Examples in Movies and TV
We looked at examples in literature, now it's time to transition to film and television. One of my favorite recent movies was Shane Black's The Nice Guys. This highly comedic film noir tells the story of two private detectives wrapped up in a missing person's case where the conspiracy goes all the way to the top.
The detectives in question have two very different personalities. One is goofy, and the other is hardened. Shane Black writes these guys so well, it's impossible not to be impressed. To show their personalities, without telling them to us, we get great character introductions. Healy is breaking skulls. And March is bungling breaking and entering so badly people think he tried to kill himself. We're shown their personalities, and then we understand why they clash through the rest of the movie.
In film and TV, we're often doing things in subtle ways to show, not tell people who the characters are and what's going on inside them. As a visual medium, the onus is on the writer and director to get this done with the actors.
One of my favorite moments is how the character of Bertram Cooper in Mad Men made everyone take their shoes off before entering his office. We learned that he was a fastidious neat freak. And it became a running gag that was expanded on when there would be a mess in the office or when they had a serious moment, they could juxtapose by showing everyone in their socks.
Another moment that stands out is how Walt gets walked all over in the pilot script of Breaking Bad. He never stands up for himself when the high school kids laugh at him cleaning car wheels at his second job, and he suffers through his brother-in-law's macho hijinks. All of this adds to a portrait of a guy ready to explode when it's his time. And none of that is dialogue or told directly to us, it's just actions and subtle hints.
'The Nice Guys'Credit: Warner Brothers
Summing Up "What Is Indirect Characterization (Definition and Examples)"
Now that you understand a character's personality traits and characterization, it's time to put it all to use. What details can you add to your screenwriting to maximize this kind of addition to characters' personalities? And how can this add depth to your stories?
You have the answers now. It's time to get out there and put them on paper and then onto the screen.
We can't wait to see what you come up with.
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