There are two general methods of characterization—Indirect and Direct. The Indirect method consists of the author telling the reader the character’s background, feelings, values, and so forth. This is that bugaboo all writers are warned away from—“telling” instead of “showing,” the author interpreting the character for the reader. Over-using the indirect method of characterization will result in the First Deadly Sin of writing, monotonous prose. There are, however, times when the Indirect method is useful. With it, the writer can move freely in time and space and can communicate a lot of information quickly.
Just remember, because it is telling and not showing, a little goes a long way. Readers want to be pulled into the scene, to experience the story with the character.
So most of a writer’s work in characterization occurs through the Direct method. There are four generally recognized ways to characterize directly—appearance, action, speech, and thought.
Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction, says that “appearance is especially important because our eyes are our most highly developed means of perception” and that “it is appearance that prompts our first reaction to people.” The accumulation of concrete particulars in a person’s appearance—not just hair color, but hair style—not only gives the reader something to “see,” but also reveals something about the character. It may be unkind to judge a person by his/her appearance, but the fact is appearance says something about who we are.
BUT a story is not just what characters look like. It is, more importantly, what characters do. Action is what drives a story. Action causes and reveals conflict, which is the heart of any story. Action causes and reveals change, which is essential to character development. What characters do reveals who they are more powerfully than any other descriptor. Characters make decisions and re-act to forces acting on them. And their reactions become the catalysts for further actions in the story.
And remember, even when a character does nothing in response to a stimulus, the lack of action is itself a response that reveals something about who the person is. Burroway says, “In fiction as in life, restraint, the decision to do nothing, is fraught with potential tension.”
In the next From the Forge column, we’ll look at the remaining Direct methods of characterization—speech and thought.