We look at direct and indirect characterization in scriptwriting with a few quick examples to help understand how it can be applied.
It is said that character is plot and plot is character. A little bit of a clunky saying, but the basic idea is sound. One informs the other and the story flows from them. Simple right?
But even the best plot will fall flat if the characters are not up to scratch. Nobody wants a heist caper with a lead who has as much depth as a muddy puddle. This article looks at types of characterization and how it’s helpful when writing a script.
What is Characterization?
From Carrie Bradshaw to Tony Soprano, every classic character has been brought to us through the same method. Although each writer will have their own take on it, the aim is always the same. It’s how the writer tells us exactly who a character is.
Although used in many forms of writing, the screenplay format requires a unique approach. Novelists can visit much more of a character’s life in a book than in a screenplay. Not that a screenwriter doesn’t need to work on all that juicy backstory. They just can’t tell us about it in the same way. Unless using flashbacks or dialogue, scripts need to tell us what a character does and looks like to achieve this.
There are two main types of characterization – direct and indirect. They are both parts of the same whole and work together. However, they are two separate parts of a character’s on-screen persona.
The direct approach focuses on a character’s appearance, profession and pursuits.
When a script describes things like eye colour, height, clothes, passions, and hobbies – this is direct characterization. A writer might focus on their beard or how torn the jeans are they wear to their job as a lumberjack.
Visual cues are important, as a screenplay is made of only dialogue and action. However, the direct method on its own creates the type of characters we have seen time and time again. What’s more, an audience might feel that they are being spoon-fed the story by the writer.
The second method is indirect. This focuses on how a character speaks, acts and thinks.
When we see how a character speaks to a loved one, reacts under pressure or what party they vote for – this is indirect characterization. If we take our lumberjack and add that he cares about trees, has a stutter and never misses dinner with his husband, he is much more interesting.
Learning how a character looks, acts and speaks builds richness and depth. Finding a balance between the two methods is key to writing good characters.
Some characters have had such a lasting effect, that they became part of pop culture. Here are a few quick examples to help understand characterization. Taking two of cinema’s greatest creations, we can break down the methods that brought them to life.
Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal of Hannibal in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is part of cinema history. This classic character was brought to us through a blend of direct and indirect characterization.
Directly, we can see that Lecter is a violent criminal. He is heavily restricted with a straight jacket and mask. Scary yes, but it’s when we add the other parts of his character that shivers start running down your spine.
Indirectly, we find that he is clever and cultured. Even his outbursts and threats of violence seem almost polite. One of the film’s most famous lines reveals so much about him in just a few words. “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti” – shudder!
In the Coen Brothers film Fargo (1996), Frances McDormand steals the show as Marge Gunderson. Through balanced character building, we learn more about Marge with each step of her investigation.
Directly, we see a conflicting image of a character. A heavily pregnant police chief, working a murder in a rugged town in North Dakota. This set of traits is even more puzzling when combined with the indirect aspects.
At first, the script presents us with a jovial and slightly slow country cop. She is always polite, and her simple way of speaking makes her seem like she’s no threat. However, as the film moves forward, we see that Marge’s steady methods are much wilier than they first seemed.
The audience underestimates her on the same level as her foes. By the time we understand, the case is closed and we’re eating humble pie in the roadside diner.
In short, finding a good balance between direct and indirect methods is the key to creating great characters. Scripts rely on this method more than other forms of writing. Making it an important skill to master.
A great way of learning this is to read and write screenplays as much as possible. Once you get a natural feel for it, you’ll find you can write characters that command the page and the screen.