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Indirect Characterization Definition: Indirect characterization is when the reader learns about the attributes of a character through their speech, actions, reactions from other characters, and appearance. The reader draws inferences about the character’s personality based on this information.

Indirect Characterization

Indirect characterization puts the reader in charge of deriving important information about a character through inferences in dialogue, actions, and reactions of that character and others in a story. Indirect characterization helps point the reader towards the question of why characters do certain things in a story. By examining their personalities, their interactions with others, the way they speak and look, and their reactions to events, the reader can reasonably deduce a character’s motivations. By working to understand a character in this way, the character and the story become more memorable and more personal to a reader.

A character’s motivations may reveal important details about how events in the past have shaped them, and the reader may find similarities with their own experiences in these details. An author can utilize these connections to develop theme, or the central message he or she wants the reader to garner from a story. For example, Atticus’ quiet, yet patient discussion with Scout who is visibly distraught after her first day of school, leads to an important theme Harper Lee wants the reader to take away from her novel To Kill A Mockingbird. Atticus tells Scout, “‘First of all,’ he said, ‘if you learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. 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.’” From this discussion, the reader can reasonably infer that Atticus is speaking from experience, and his wisdom is important for Scout to understand in order for her to be able to understand the world around her. The reader also sees that empathy is an important lesson that Atticus wants Scout to learn, and it is also an important theme that Lee reveals through the events of Tom Robinson’s trial, and Boo’s eventual appearance.

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Examples of Indirect Characterization

Odysseus reveals his pride and arrogance when he taunts the Cyclops by revealing his name as he and his men escape the Cyclopes’ island in the epic poem The Odyssey by Homer.

Montresor, the narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Cask of Amontillado”, lets the reader know that he is a vengeful person when he explains his plan to seek revenge on Fortunato for insulting him.

In the novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hester Prynne’s constant touching of the scarlet “A” on her chest reveals to the reader that she feels guilt and remorse for her sin, while also hinting that there is something deeper about her sin that hasn’t been revealed yet.

George’s concern for Lennie in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men reveals a softer side to George than he lets on. His gruff outer exterior is quelled by the fact that he tells Slim that he started watching out for Lennie after Lennie’s Aunt Clara died.

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