Indirect characterization is an essential part of developing nuanced characters. But what is indirect characterization? We’re going to break down indirect characterization by looking at its definition and examples in literature and film. By the end, you’ll know why indirect is an important part of developing nuanced characters.
what is Indirect Characterization?
Primer on flat vs. round characters
Before we dive into our indirect characterization definition, let’s quickly go over the difference between flat and round characters.
Flat characters are simple, one-dimensional characters. They’re often static (unchanging) and rarely indirectly characterized. Here’s an example of a flat character:
- Chewbacca from Star Wars. Chewbacca is a good example of a flat character because he’s incredibly simple, doesn’t change, and rarely indirectly characterized.
Round characters are complex multi-dimensional characters. They’re usually dynamic (changing) and often indirectly characterized. Here’s an example of a round character
- Don Draper from Mad Men. Don Draper is a good example of a round character because he’s emotionally complex, subject to change, and frequently indirectly characterized.
Indirect characterization is an important part of developing multi-dimensional characters. As such, it's an integral facet of round characters. We’ll break down how indirect characterization leads to character depth in a bit, but first let’s break down the indirect characterization definition.
INDIRECT CHARACTERIZATION DEFINITION
What is indirect characterization?
Indirect characterization is a subtype of characterization that’s defined by “showing” rather than “telling.” Indirect characterization is an important technique used by writers for developing nuanced characters.
Indirect characterization in movies
Indirect characterization examples
Although indirect characterization is defined by the tenet “show, don’t tell,” it’s still used in literature to show who a character is rather than to tell us about them.
Here’s a great example of indirect characterization from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In this example, Atticus Finch kills a rabid dog named Tim Johnson. As you’re reading, think about how this event indirectly characterizes Atticus.
“With movements so swift they seemed simultaneous, Atticus’s hand yanked a balltipped lever as he brought the gun to his shoulder. The rifle cracked. Tim Johnson leaped, flopped over and crumpled on the sidewalk in a brown-and-white heap. He didn’t know what hit him.”
This moment is an example of indirect characterization because it shows Atticus’s willingness to step up when leadership is needed. It also shows us that Atticus is a merciful character.
Conversely, House of Cards uses a similar plot set-up but characterizes its protagonist in a more sinister way. Watch the clip below and think about how Frank Underwood’s action of killing the dog is less about mercy than it is about power.
In this moment, we get the impression that Frank Underwood is a ruthless character. Yes, he may have a hint of mercy too – but he’s mostly a “do whatever it takes” kind of character. All of this is a testament to great indirect characterization.
indirect characterization in screenwriting
How to use indirect characterization
Indirect characterization is an important part of building round characters. But how do we use indirect characterization? Well, we start with showing who characters are.
We imported The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring script into StudioBinder’s screenwriting software to take a closer look at one of the best moments of indirect characterization in scriptwriting history. As you’re reading, think about how screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson use indirect characterization to show us why Aragorn is such a great character.
Here, we’re shown (not told) that Aragorn is a strong character. He not only rejects the allure of the ring, but he honors his vow to protect Frodo, even at the prospect of losing his own life. You can watch the scene in all its filmmaking glory below.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring isn’t the only big-budget film to masterfully implement indirect characterization though.
Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is an intimate character drama with a cosmic scope. In our Save the Cat! video essay on the film, we break down 15 key story beats that show Interstellar’s screenwriting strengths and weaknesses. We timestamped the video below to highlight an important moment of indirect characterization. Watch the video and think about how Cooper’s actions indirectly characterize him.
In this moment from Interstellar, Cooper sacrifices himself for the sake of humanity. This is a great example of indirect characterization because it shows us Cooper’s “character” through an action.
If you want to implement indirect characterization in your own story, consider showing moments of heroism (or villainy). This will indirectly tell us about a character in a way that’s more engaging than if you just described them.
Character Archetype Examples
Want to learn more about how writers build characters? Check out our next article where we break down a variety of character archetypes in literature and movies. We’ll show you character archetypes from The Office, Star Wars, and more so that you can learn how to implement character archetypes in your own stories.