BlogEnglishLiterary Technique: Characterisation

Literary Technique: Characterisation

Animator designer Development designing - Characterisation

If you’ve already taken a look at our list of Literary Techniques and are still a bit stumped by characterisation, don’t worry — we’ve got your back!

We’ll run you through a deeper dive on the technique, and provide you some more insight into the different types of characterisation you’ll encounter. We’ll also give you a few examples putting the technique into context, and walk you through a quick guide on how to analyse characterisation. 

Let’s get into it!

What is characterisation?
Types of Characterisation: Direct VS Indirect
How do you analyse characterisation?

What is characterisation?

Storyboard drawing - What is characterisation?

We’ve all got those characters that we really like and empathise with, or really don’t, based on their decisions, relationships, personality traits, and physical descriptions. These connections between reader and character are forged through the process of characterisation, most commonly used in novels, short stories, and films with voiceover narration.

Characterisation is the technique through which characters are introduced, and over the course of a text become fully formed through their decisions and interactions. Through this process, characters feel ‘real’ to a reader, which allows us to either align ourselves with or against them.

This therefore deepens an audience’s engagement with a text by making them consider the character in relation to themselves.

This technique also allows readers to understand what ‘type’ of character they’re dealing with; for instance, they could be a ‘hero’, a ‘villain’, an ‘antihero’, or an ‘innocent’. 

Types of Characterisation: Direct VS Indirect

Characterisation comes under two main types: direct and indirect. Although different, both types work in tandem to create complete, dynamic, and interesting characters.

As such, it’s really important that you understand the difference, and how they add to a narrative.

Let’s take a quick look at the two now!

Direct Characterisation

You’ve probably heard that authors either “show” or “tell” things to their readers in the process of writing a narrative. Direct characterisation is an example of “telling”, as authors simply state facts about characters that leave no room for ambiguity or readers’ interpretation.

This kind of characterisation might focus on things like physical appearance, explicit personality traits, or described emotionality. It’s commonly used in narration when a character is first introduced, as a way of quickly and effectively introducing that character to the audience.

Example: Harry Potter

An example of direct characterisation is our first introduction to Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The following passage is one of the first descriptions of Harry in the novel:

“Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age. He looked even smaller and skinnier than he really was because all he had to wear were old clothes of Dudley’s and Dudley was about four times bigger than he was. Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair and bright-green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Sellotape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose. The only thing Harry liked about his own appearance was a very thin scar on his forehead which was shaped like a bolt of lightning.”

Because this is the first time we’re meeting Harry, it’s important for us to be able to visualise him and understand his basic physical and personality traits.

As the series progresses, and we get to know Harry better, JK Rowling starts to use indirect characterisation more often; initially, though, it’s important that we get told basic information to ground ourselves.

Example: The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby Book Aesthetic - Essay Analysis Featured Image

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is also full of direct characterisation. The novel is narrated by Nick Carraway, who keenly observes the people he meets, and provides incredibly detailed descriptions of them. The following passage is one such example of this in the novel:

“Tom Buchanan in riding clothes was standing with his legs apart on the front porch. He had changed since his New Haven years. Now he was a sturdy, straw haired man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. Two shining, arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward. Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body—he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder  moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage—a cruel body. His speaking voice, a gruff husky tenor, added to the impression of fractiousness he conveyed. There was a touch of paternal contempt in it, even toward people he liked—and there were men at New Haven who had hated his guts.”

Combining vivid descriptive imagery with metaphor, Fitzgerald is able to build a portrait of an intimidating, unkind man with just a few sentences. Readers are also able to viscerally visualise Tom Buchanan, and are immediately positioned against him through Carraway’s description.

Looking for quotes from The Great Gatsby? Check out our list of quotes from The Great Gatsby!

In using such negative characterisation, Fitzgerald sets the tone for any further interaction we as an audience will have with Buchanan, effectively casting him as an antagonist and someone that we are not supposed to like.

In short, direct characterisation is used by authors to efficiently introduce a character to their readers, and to quickly position an audience in relation to them. Mostly, it relies on ‘telling’ and blunt descriptions.

Indirect Characterisation

Indirect characterisation, on the other hand, is an example of “showing”, and shapes characters by describing their thoughts, actions, and speech.

Significant to this is the way that authors use focalisation – that is, the perspective through which a narrative is presented – and first-person narration to give us insights directly into a character’s mind, revealing their interiorities and motives. Shifts in focalisation may also help us learn about the character by revealing what other characters think about them.

Example: Harry Potter (again)

For an example of indirect characterisation, let’s turn back to Harry Potter. Half-Blood Prince sees Harry wrestling with his feelings for Ginny Weasley, and in the following passage, JK Rowling uses indirect characterisation to describe Harry’s feelings about Ginny’s boyfriend:

“It was as though something large and scaly erupted into life in Harry’s stomach, clawing at his insides: Hot blood seemed to flood his brain, so that all thought was extinguished, replaced by a savage urge to jinx Dean into a jelly. Wrestling with this sudden madness, he heard Ron’s voice as though from a great distance away.”

By this point in the series, we’ve come to know Harry really well. So rather than state that Harry was jealous and angry, Rowling instead describes his emotional state and thoughts through metaphor, symbolism, and imagery. This creates a far more impactful description, and serves as one that the audience can relate to.

Example: To Kill A Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird - Trial Scene

Another good example of indirect characterisation is this passage from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird:

“Scout, simply by the nature of the work, every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one’s mine, I guess. You might hear some ugly talk about it at school, but do one thing for me if you will: you just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ’em get your goat.

Narrated from Scout Finch’s perspective, this excerpt relates a conversation Scout has with her lawyer father, Atticus, about an upcoming case that he has to handle, one that is expected to cause issues for the Finch family around town.

On the hunt for quotes from To Kill a Mockingbird? Check out our list of quotes from To Kill a Mockingbird!

The nature of Atticus’s speech allows readers to understand that Atticus has a strong moral compass: rather than shying away from a case that is controversial, he takes it because it is right to do so.

He further encourages Scout to take the moral ‘high ground’, allowing readers to understand his values and the morals that he wishes to instil in his children, especially that a person should always fight for what is right and what they believe in.

Why is indirect characterisation important?

Indirect characterisation is thus an important aid to direct characterisation because it is often a stronger way of describing someone or something. It supplements more blunt characterisation by providing layers and dynamics. Indirect characterisation also inspires a reader to have their own interpretation, and make their own inferences regarding each character.

This allows authors to guide their readers through a narrative, making it a far more powerful and intriguing text than if their readers were merely given information. These techniques also allow us to predict a character’s reaction to an event, or their future actions.

This is especially important when their choices end up conflicting with what the audience thinks will happen, creating shock, disbelief, and anger — almost like the audience has been betrayed by someone they know.

How do you analyse characterisation?

Lego characters

Now we know what characterisation is, we need to know how to analyse it in an essay. Some of the things that you should look out for include:

#1: ‘Type’ of character

Try to figure out which archetype each character falls under.

  • Are they a traditional ‘hero’/‘protagonist’ or ‘villain’/‘antagonist’?
  • Are they more like an ‘antihero’, being morally grey and of questionable intentions?
  • Are they a supporting character, or a main character?

Answering all of these questions will help you understand why they are being characterised by the author in a particular way.

#2: Description

Note down how a character is described by an author. Make note of both direct (physical traits, personalities, emotions) and indirect (speech/dialogue, thoughts, morals/values) characterisation, and see how they all fold together to create a nuanced persona.

This will tell you how an author has envisioned a particular character, and guide your own imagination and analysis of them. 

#3: Motives and actions

Figuring out what drives a character (relayed to us through indirect characterisation) is crucial to unlocking their characterisation. Authors create characters in particular ways because it aligns with the character’s purpose, so you need to evaluate how a character’s personality or actions relates to their objectives.

Actions (direct characterisation) are equally as important as motives and thoughts in revealing the core of characters; after all, actions speak louder than words. Note how a character acts, and the impact that their actions have on both the characters around them and the overarching narrative.

Consider whether their actions could be considered moral or immoral, ‘good’ or ‘evil’, and whether they align with their personalities and purposes. Also consider whether or not a character cares about the consequences of their actions; if they don’t, what does this tell us about the person that the author has created?

#4: Narrative perspective

Who is telling the story? Understanding the narrative perspective is really important, because it will help you figure out how the character is being positioned.

In doing so, you can understand the dynamics between characters (including the narrator, the protagonist, and others), and unlock the nuances that each character will have.

Consider unreliable narrators as well:

  • Should we trust an unreliable narrator’s description of themself or another character?
  • If not, what can we infer about the author’s intention in characterising someone in a particular way through the unreliable narrator’s perspective?
  • What does it say about their relationships or motives?

All of these questions will help you break down complex layers of characterisation, and understand authorial purpose and effect. 

Summary of Characterisation

We know that was a lot, so here’s the TL;DR of characterisation:

  • Characterisation is the process by which a character is firstly introduced, and subsequently fleshed out to form a fully-conceived character. 
  • There are two main types of characterisation – direct and indirect.
  • Both types of characterisation are used together in order to create a fully character. Direct is more blunt and provides important basic information, whilst indirect is more subtle and lends nuance to a character and narrative.

And that’s all from us — remember to check out our website for more helpful articles complete with tips, tricks, and analysis. Good luck for your upcoming English assessments! 

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Rujuta Banhatti is currently a third year Law/International Studies student at UNSW. As a Content Writer at Art of Smart, she is super keen to be able to write (read: academically rant) about texts that she’s absolutely loved, both at school and in general.

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