Examples of Direct & Indirect Characterization
Fiction writers use many techniques to introduce readers to their story's characters. Direct characterization occurs when the narrator gives explicit information about a character, while indirect characterization reveals the character's personality through behavior, dialog and what other people say about the character. Examples of characterization in literature can help you model these different techniques in your own writing and recognize them as you read fiction.
Where Connie is Going
The opening of Joyce Carol Oates' "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been" uses indirect characterization to introduce its protagonist, a teenage girl named Connie. In the story's first lines, we learn that Connie has "a quick, nervous giggling habit" of checking her reflection in mirrors and comparing her appearance to others. This use of indirect characterization reveals that Connie may have a streak of vanity, but harbors insecurity as well. Her superficial interest in appearances and being physically attractive will ultimately play a role in her encounter with Arnold Friend, a suspicious man who destroys her innocent view of the world.
Hulga and Her Mother
Fiction writer Flannery O'Connor is famous for writing about troubled characters with conflicted family relationships, such as Hulga of "Good Country People." Hulga, a 32-year-old with a Ph.D. in philosophy, lives with her mother due to a serious illness, and her actions indirectly demonstrate her resentment toward their antagonistic relationship. She thumps her wooden leg on the floor, slams doors and lectures her mother about her narrow-mind world view. O'Connor also uses direct characterization to inform us that Hulga has a heart condition and likely won't live to see age 45, as well as relay her interest in reading and lack of desire for companionship.
The Deaf Man in the Dark Bar
Sometimes, authors use other people's opinions of someone to develop a character. Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" portrays a conversation between two waiters at a bar, about an old, deaf man, one of their regular customers. In the story's opening, readers learn through direct characterization that the man gets drunk often and has a habit of wandering out of the bar without paying. From then on, the majority of what readers know about him comes from the waiters through indirect characterization in their dialog. They talk about the old man's suicide attempt the week before and reveal that he is apparently very wealthy, showing readers that deeper issues surround his constant presence at the bar.
While many stories use a mix of direct and indirect characterization to introduce their protagonists, Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," the story of a small town's sacrificial ritual to ensure a good harvest, provides a notable exception. Tessie Hutchinson, the woman who becomes the lottery's victim, is revealed entirely through indirect characterization. For example, her joking demeanor when she arrives at the lottery and the way she wears her sweater "thrown over her shoulders" indicate a carefree, good-humored personality. Being late to the lottery because she was doing dishes also reveals dedication to her family. In the end, these admirable qualities make her death at the rest of the town's hands a tragic ending.
- Read Write Think: Defining Characterization
- University of Minnesota Duluth: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been; Joyce Carol Oates
- Weber State University: Good Country People; Flannery O'Connor
- Amherst Regional High School: A Clean, Well-Lighted Place; Ernest Hemingway
- Middlebury College: The Lottery; Shirley Jackson
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