How to make your students better writers with indirect characterization

…an easy way to flesh out your fictional characters, add juicy detail to your writing, and transform your bland story scenes into a meaty feast.

 

We all know that nothing is more boring than a flat character in a short story. And you don’t need a Ph.D. in character analysis or narrative to figure out that students (like every novice writer) have a habit of churning out characters that are all too obvious. 

Character is easily one of the most important story elements, yet teaching characterization is surprisingly challenging. One of the challenges the teacher faces in writing instruction is to make their teaching on the writing process more explicit. Simply telling students to “work on character development”, “make your character’s personality more 3 dimensional” or “show don’t tell” isn’t enough.

Young boy struggling with his homework sitting with his head down on the table surrounded by crumpled pages of screwed up paper

Many students know that characters should be interesting and believable, but struggle to create a main character that keeps their readers turning the pages. This can be frustrating for students and lead them to believe they simply can’t write good characters. All too often, a student doesn’t know HOW to give a flat character more personality, or how to convey a character trait without saying it directly.  

One simple way to help a student boost their fiction writing skills is through indirect characterization: a technique of adding sensory description and revealing a character’s thoughts and feelings through actions and dialogue. This approach is also known as showing instead of telling, a key concept in the creative writing classroom. When a student develops this skill, they learn to avoid shallow, predictable description and build towards more subtle, complex characters.

  

So what is indirect characterization? 

 

I’m glad you asked!

To understand indirect characterization, it’s helpful to contrast it with its blatant brother: DIRECT characterization.

  • Direct characterization is when you TELL the reader something about a character.
  • Indirect characterization is when you SHOW the reader something about a character.

If direct characterization is the blatant brother, indirect characterization is the subtle sister. Let me show you what I mean with two examples:

Direct Characterization: John was scared as he jumped across the canyon.

Indirect Characterization: John’s foot slipped right on the edge of the cliff as he jumped. He let out a scream and half jumped, half fell through the air, his arms flailing wildly. He landed with a thud on the other side, hot tears of relief in his eyes.

Do you see the difference?  

The first example simply tells you directly that John is scared. It’s flat, and kind of boring. The second example is much more interesting to read because you see John’s fear indirectly – through his actions and sensory detail! You’re never told that John is scared, you get to work it out from details, the things John actually does.
 

It all boils down to adding interesting DETAIL. It’s the detail that brings characters to life.

 

 So why is the extra detail more interesting? 

It’s interesting to us as readers because it invites us to participate. Indirect characterization engages the reader’s mind and allows us to make connections, join the dots, and ponder character motives. We are actually joining in the story making process with the writer and this is fun! 

Reading direct characterization is like eating food that someone else has already chewed. On the other hand, Indirect characterization is like being served a delicious feast where you can let your taste buds run wild.
 

How do we teach indirect characterization when we are teaching writing?

 

The good news is this technique is easy to learn, and once students have added it to their writer’s toolbox, they’ll be able to easily renovate writing that is too direct (see my writing workshop task below!).  

Overall though, here are the two key things to help students understand: 

1. Students need to understand indirect characterization is – why it’s good and why direct characterization is bad (usually).

 Here you’re trying to show students what good writing looks like in contrast to bad writing. You want them to get a feel for it, so concrete examples are important here. Give students some telling sentence examples of characters’ emotions and contrast them with descriptive writing that shows the emotion without telling it. Bonus: include an action verb or line of dialogue that communicates the same thing!

The takeaway writing rule is this:

Detail = interesting

Summary = boring. 

This can be somewhat counter-intuitive to students who may have been taught to summarise in other subjects or who may dislike reading to begin with! But we must help students grasp the fact that more detail is actually better.

A picture of a magnifying glass over paper cut out characters

2. Students need to know how to apply indirect characterization to writing.

The goal is for students to develop a style of writing where they use more descriptive words (show instead of tell) in their first drafts – but that is going to be a long journey and it will take time. The much nearer and more practical goal is to give students:

a) practice in identifying flat writing, and
b) a step by step process they can follow to fix it.

Knowing the theory is one thing, but students need practice to turn knowledge into a skill.

With that in mind, here’s a practical excercise, and a step by step guide that you can use in your class straight away!

Writing Workshop Task 


Transform each of these DIRECT characterization (telling) examples into a paragraph of INDIRECT characterization. Aim for juicy detail!
 

1. Don the magician felt a growing sense of dread as he looked out across the unfriendly crowd. He was very nervous 

2. At school, Brad rudely told everyone that Harry had played a terrible game of football on the weekend. Harry was filled with a desire for revenge. 

3. Lucy desperately wanted a new laptop. She couldn’t stop thinking about it and that night in the kitchen she pestered her dad about it.

4. Pete was so happy when April said that she’d go to the prom with him. When he got off the bus the next day he felt like a king.

5. Emma was filled with surprise and shock when her friends surprised her for her 14th birthday. She couldn’t believe they’d remembered!

  

How to do it 

a) Circle or highlight the words in each sentence that are too DIRECT (telling).

b) Now think about how to communicate those DIRECT words through an action, a bit of dialogue, or sensory detail. Write at least 1 action, dialogue line, and detail.

c) Highlight your juiciest ideas for actions/dialogue/detail.

d) Rewrite the original sentence, but with your juiciest character actions, dialogue or details instead of those boring DIRECT words.

 

Step by Step Example (Teacher’s Guide)

Let’s start with example 1: 

Don the magician felt a growing sense of dread as he looked out across the unfriendly crowd. He felt nervous. 

a) First, highlight the DIRECT (telling) bits of the sentence.

 Don the magician felt a growing sense of dread as he looked out across the unfriendly crowd. He felt nervous.

B) Then come up with some rough ideas for actions, dialogue, and sensory details that show each of your highlighted DIRECT bits. Basically, you’re finding an INDIRECT way of communicating the same thing without saying it.

 

a growing sense of dread 

  • Actions – Don checking his watch, rifling through his notes, swallowing, dropping his wand,
  • Dialogue – Maybe Don could say something that shows he’s nervous? “You’re a tough lot aren’t you?” or “Just bear with me, I’ll get there.”
  • Sensory details – starting to sweat, feels like there’s not enough air in the room, realises he’s forgotten something

the unfriendly crowd 

  • Actions – Someone laughs loudly, or throws something on to the stage, or talks over Don
  • Dialogue – Maybe someone hurls an insult? “Geez, he’s an amateur isn’t he?”, or “Is that the best you can do?”
  • Sensory details – Beer bottles are on the ground, noisy, stinky, lights feel too bright?

felt nervous 

  • Actions – Don glances towards the back of the stage, drops a prop, stutters
  • Dialogue – Maybe someone actually notices he looks nervous? “Are you ok?”, or “Look, he looks like he’s about to pass out!”
  • Sensory details – lights feel too bright, head spin, breathing shallow

c) Next, read over your ideas and highlight the most interesting ones. I’ve highlighted my favorites in green…

 

a growing sense of dread 

  • Actions – Don checking his watch, rifling through his notes, swallowing, dropping his wand,
  • Dialogue – Maybe Don could say something that shows he’s nervous? “You’re a tough lot aren’t you?” or “Just bear with me, I’ll get there.”
  • Sensory detailsstarting to sweat, feels like there’s not enough air in the room, realises he’s forgotten something 

the unfriendly crowd 

  • Actions – Someone laughs loudly, or throws something on to the stage, or talks over Don
  • Dialogue – Maybe someone hurls an insult? “Geez, he’s an amateur isn’t he?”, or “Is that the best you can do?”
  • Sensory details – Beer bottles are on the ground, noisy, stinky, lights feel too bright? 

felt nervous 

  • Actions – Don glances towards the back of the stage, drops a prop, stutters
  • Dialogue – Maybe someone actually notices he looks nervous? “Are you ok?”, or “Look, he looks like he’s about to pass out!”
  • Sensory detailslights feel too bright, head spin, breathing shallow

d) Finally, rewrite the sentence using your favorite (green) ideas instead of those boring DIRECT bits. You’ll need to rearrange words here and there to make it fit nicely. Here’s what I came up with:

BEFORE (Direct characterization):
Don the magician felt a growing sense of dread as he looked out across the unfriendly crowd. He was very nervous.

AFTER (Indirect characterization):
Don swallowed. “Just bear with me,” he said, starting to sweat as he fumbled for his wand. The air in the tent was thick, and the babbling voices of the crowd washed over him like a choking wave.
   “Is that the best you can do?” A big man near the front of the stage laughed. Don glanced towards the back of the stage. His head had started to spin. The lights were too bright, and his breathing came in shallow gasps.
   “Look out!” boomed the big man, grinning, “the little wizard is about to pass out!

There! Now isn’t that so much better?

Give it a go and let me know how your class goes in the comments below!

 

…And if you want to read about my design process for my game-based indirect characterization lesson you can check it out below! 

How I made my game-based lesson on indirect characterization:

 

My original goal was to make an interactive lesson, where students could explore the effects of showing-not-telling in writing. Ultimately, I wanted to give students a very concrete process for adding detail to their writing and converting shallow characterization into something much deeper and more engaging.

I started out with this idea of positioning students as the expert. In the end, I decided it would be fun to help a baby monster write because I thought students would connect with the idea of helping someone worse at writing than them!

 

A picture of a boy and a girl - characters that players can pick

To begin with, I wrote a little interactive tutorial to introduce the concept.

I wanted it to feel light and fun, so the tutorial became a conversation with a wizard – where students could revise (or learn!) about the difference between direct and indirect characterization.

The little conversation choices at the bottom of the screen help to keep students interested in the learning (they get to make choices!) but also serve as a way to differentiate the learning.

Confident students can skip ahead faster, while students who haven’t mastered the content can get sent back to consolidate their learning.

After the tutorial, I wanted to test for understanding and really make sure students understood the concept. So in the next section of the game, students help baby Drago choose between 2 similar sentences.

 

A wizard explains the difference between indirect and direct characterization

 

Students get a point for every time they correctly distinguish indirect characterization from direct characterization. Getting an answer wrong loses a point, so students will only progress when they have shown they really know the difference!

Finally, I wanted to give students a way to apply this new knowledge to writing, so I wrote the writing workshop task (above).

Along the way, I realised that I really needed a guide to scaffold the task and also provide teachers with a clearer understanding of what to expect from students.

Another differentiation feature I included was an option to highlight the direct bits of the sentences for students automatically.

This means that a student who needs a bit of extra help can get started on the bulk of the task right away, without getting bogged down in the details.

 

Overall I’m happy with how it turned out!

 

If you end up trying it in your class, let me know how it goes, I’d love to hear from you.

 

-Gil

Help the baby dragon learn indirect characterization through a quiz!

Get the lesson

Level up your students’ writing with this fun, no-prep lesson on indirect characterization for grades 5-9.

This immersive, game-based activity helps students understand what indirect characterization is, why it’s a better way to write, and how to apply this technique in their own work. 

This lesson is browser-based and auto-grading which means it will work on any device and is perfect for distance learning or home school – simply send your students a link and code to get them started straight away.

 CCSS Codes: RL.5.1, 5.4, RL.6.1, 6.4, RL.7.1, 7.4, RL.8.1, 8.4, RL.9-10.1, 9-10.4

Direct vs Indirect characterization product thumbnail

Written by Gilbert Walker

The mastermind behind GameWise

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5 Comments

  1. Peter Harrison

    This is an awesome way to do talk about characterisation; explained clearly and demonstrated with flair. Useful exercises for novice and experienced writers alike–love it! Even after a decade of trying to figure out this ‘story-writing’ thing, I still summarise too often and show too little.
    Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    • Gilbert Walker

      Thanks so much Pete! Really appreciate it 🙂

      I know right?! It’s ridiculously easy to tell. I guess it’s important to communicate this fact to students too. The more we can show young writers our crappy first drafts, the more they’ll be able to see the whole process as an iterative journey. Hey we should totally do a collaborative project sometime!?

      Reply
  2. Peter Harrison

    Absolutely!

    I’ve got endless drafts of old scenes that I’ve re-written dozens of times. Reading the previous versions (or remembering the times when I shared them) makes me feel ill… but feedback is crucial for improvement.

    Reply
    • Gilbert Walker

      Bahaha. Yep that ill feeling! It’s kind of great too though. Shows how far you’ve come!

      Reply
  3. Katrina Walker

    Great tool

    Reply

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