Writing Tip: Indirect Characterization

Power of WordsIndirect characterization is a technique used to develop characters in which the author provides clues that allow the reader to experience a character in more depth. Indirect characterization is showing rather than telling. Instead of saying, “John walked to his seat. He was tired,” I would provide clues that communicate the same idea, but in a way that would help readers figure it out on their own. I might write, “John shuffled through the door a moment before the bell. He yawned as he took his seat and rubbed his eyes, squinting up at the clock. Red pillow lines still marked his face, and his disheveled hair looked like he’d run his fingers through it maybe once.” In this example, I never told you John was tired. But you can probably assume it—from the yawns, the bed-head, the shuffling.

We could make the above scene even more interesting by adding a deeper point of view. Let’s say I’m in the point of view of the teacher. Maybe she’s having a rough day and is tired of students shuffling in late. We’re still going to stay in third person POV, but we’re in the teacher’s head:

“John shuffled through the door, a moment before the bell. Ms. Williams cringed as she put down her box of tardy slips. How that boy always managed to come in right before the bell, she’d never understand. He couldn’t be so lucky every day, though, could he? One day he’d be late, and then it would be detention for him. She suppressed a smile. While the rest of the students got out their homework, John squinted up at the clock. As if he didn’t know the bell always rang at 8 a.m. sharp. Teenagers. She marked him down as ‘present’ before calling the class to order. She’d call on John first. With those pillow lines on his face and the ridiculous bed-head, he looked half asleep still. If she couldn’t get him for being tardy, she’d get him for being stupid. The rest of the class would enjoy his sleepy attempts at analyzing Edgar Allen Poe.”

This POV gets us into the teacher’s head, and boy does she have issues! It’s much more interesting than the first, more neutral, scene, because it automatically adds tension. The teacher is out to get John. Whether John knows it or not, we aren’t yet sure, but I’d like to keep reading to find out. When working on each scene, think of it as a belt in a motor, or a rubber band if you don’t want to get your hands greasy. If there isn’t enough tension, the belt won’t be able to do its job. If there’s too much tension, it will eventually break. Readers like tension, but you don’t want them to have a heart attack while reading. Still, if there isn’t enough tension, there’s nothing to keep the reader glued to your book.

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One Response to Writing Tip: Indirect Characterization

  1. I think the amount of indirect characterization depends on what kind of story an author is writing, and the word count an editor is willing to allow. In the above example of showing John is tired, I would have read one sentence, started the second and moved on. It’s the difference between 47 words instead of 10. Here’s what I think is relevant in the paragraph about the teacher (156 words), and how I’d move it quicker.
    Let’s call the story, Good-bye Mrs. Crypts.

    “John shuffled through the door, a moment before the bell. Ms. Williams cringed as she put down her box of tardy slips. She’d call on John first. If she couldn’t get him for being tardy, she’d get him for being stupid. Let him entertain the class with a groggy analysis of Edgar Allen Poe.” (last line a rewrite, 55 words)

    I’ve just saved the reader 101 words of salad, and we’re both ready to get to the meat of the meal. As a writer, I have to ask myself whether the details I’m giving are relevant or redundant. Is the reader going to care about red pillow lines on someone’s face? Does the additional detail move the story line? Those 101 other words could be used for something like this.

    “Come to think of it, John looked like the Poe she imagined, sitting at his table, with opium coursing through his veins, a black-haired demon with bleary eyes, word-drawing macabre dreams that matched her own. Like the one where she strangles every gangly high school late-comer and leaves the body for the slack-jawed janitor.”

    Now the reader knows this is not going to be a feel-good story, unless the reader is a teacher and has experienced many of these kill-all-the-teenagers fantasies, and I’ve got roughly 41 more words to spare.

    Especially with e-publishing, the ability to move the plot forward while developing character is crucial. More so depending on the genre. For example, compare these paragraphs.

    Isabel felt the cool steel of her .38 with fingertips calloused by daily practice on her violin strings. The Maestro demanded perfection and now she was perfectly confident her afternoons at Teddy’s Tacos and Firing Range would pay off. There he was, standing at the end of the pier, barely visible in the fog that nightly kissed Mission Bay Park, reeking of its voyage across the garbage strewn jetty. The miasma would shield her. But only briefly. What would Jesus do? The question Rev. Reynaldo asked every passionate Wednesday night echoed in her head. Forgive. Forgive? Maybe Mrs. Maestro would forgive his infidelity, but not Isabel Jones from Indiana. (literary)

    Isabel “Indiana” Jones felt the cool steel of her .38 she’d kept concealed in her velvet evening bag. At the end of Mission Bay Pier stood Mrs. Maestro’s faithless bastard who demanded she practice her violin until her fingertips were calloused. She fired into the fog-cloaked figure once. Twice. Heard his body hit the water, and hauled butt back to the jetty—-and Rev. Reynaldo who faithfully revved her every Wednesday night. (short story)

    Back in Indiana, Isabel took first place at the County Fair for skeet shooting. Tonight her skeet was Mrs. Maestro’s cheating spouse. She plugged him with her .38, and now he was Mrs. Maestro’s very dead louse. (flash fiction)

    While author No. 1 has us languishing on a pier nine sentences into the story, author No. 2 has the Maestro shot and in the drink after two, but if there’s a 500 word limit, author No. 3 has to hurry. Mood, motion, momentum? The author makes the call depending on the where he’s going to submit and the editor’s space limitations, and his target audience. Sometimes I want to scream at an author, “Oh, good God, get on with it…” and skip whole paragraphs of purple prose. Sometimes telling IS better than showing. Readers aren’t going to live forever.

What do you think?