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Direct Characterization Definition: Direct characterization is the description of the traits of a character in the story by the author or narrator. The narrator may tell the reader about a character’s personality, physical traits, or flaws.

Direct Characterization

Direct characterization is when the traits of a character are directly described by the author or narrator in a story. The narrator may explicitly explain the character’s physical, emotional, and/or personality traits so that the reader can create a better mental picture of the character. It can also reveal the primary conflict of a character in a story by explaining to the reader what the character’s concerns or feelings about other characters may be.

Direct characterization can be used to give deeper insight to the character’s personality as well. For example, the narrator in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales skillfully uses direct characterization to give hints to the readers about what is wrong with the characters. The narrator, when describing the Prioress, directly tells the reader, “Of smale houndes hadde she that she fedde / With rosted flessh, or milk and wastel-breed.” The careful Medieval reader would quickly note that a Prioress who has taken a vow of poverty should not be keeping dogs and feeding them expensive meats and bread. In dramas, especially during Shakespearean times, direct characterization through dialogue was often necessary because audiences had to use their imaginations without the use of modern special effects. It was also important to establish background, motivations, and personalities of characters because the story had to be told in a limited amount of time.

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Examples of Direct Characterization

The narrator’s descriptions of the pilgrims in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is direct characterization, and gives deeper clues to the inner motivations and personalities of each pilgrim.

In Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game”, the narrator uses direct characterization to describe the very frightening Ivan: “The first thing Rainsford’s eyes discerned was the largest man Rainsford had ever seen—a gigantic creature, solidly made and black-bearded to the waist.” The reader can infer from the tone of this description that Ivan is a threatening character.

Odysseus not only describes the physical traits, but also the customs of the Cyclopes in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey when he recalls, “...giants, louts, without a law to bless them. In ignorance leaving the fruitage of the earth in mystery to the immortal gods, they neither plow nor sow by hand, nor till the ground, though grain—wild wheat and barley—grows untended, and wine grapes, in clusters, ripen in heaven’s rains.”

In William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Egeus quickly establishes for the audience that Lysander has been courting his daughter Hermia in spite of the fact that he wishes for Demetrius to marry her. He says, “...This man hath bewitched the bosom of my child. / Thou, thou Lysander, thou hast given her rhymes, / And interchanged love tokens with my child.”

In the short story “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant, the narrator introduces the reader to the tragic figure of Madame Loisel, and the primary conflict of the story immediately: “She was one of those pretty, charming young women who are born, as if by an error of Fate, into a petty official’s family. She had no dowry, no hopes, and not the slightest chance of being appreciated, understood, loved, and married by a rich and distinguished man…”

Learn more about various devices in literature in our Picture Encyclopedia of Literary Elements!
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