Direct and Indirect Characterization

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Students will be able to analyze direct and indirect characterization by writing Cornell notes and discussing examples from three short stories.

Big Idea

Students analyze how readers learn about characters through direct and indirect characterization.


10 minutes

Yesterday you participated in a Socratic circle. What happened during the discussion?  How did people behave and give (or not give) homecourt advantage. What did you learn about “Zebra” from the discussion?  What is the purpose of a Socratic circle?

Notes on Direct and Indirect Characterization

15 minutes

I knew that the textbook the district adopted about ten years ago was lacking in its literary terms definitions.  I'm realizing how much it is lacking.  The textbook does not actually contain any real descriptions of common literary terms such as direct and indirect characterization.  Thus, we're relying on lecture quite a bit of the time.


Like always, we have students create separate pages in their composition notebooks for different notes.  For today, we had students create one page for traits and one page for motives. The first slide on the PowerPoint has the essential questions for both traits and motives and they are labeled as such.


We started with the difference between direct and indirect characterization. This concept falls under the standard that asks students to "analyze particular elements of a story," the particular element of the story being characterization.

  • Direct characterization occurs when the narrator him/herself tells about a character.
  • Indirect characterization occurs when characters within the story tell about a character.


We used examples from stories that we've read so far this year.  I like to limit the examples to what we've done in class, rather than relying on popular culture. I think I stopped relying on popular culture when I got old, the day I turned thirty.  Why? Doesn't it make learning fun? Sure it does, but only for the students who have that prior knowledge. The students who aren't allowed to watch TV, who aren't allowed to go on the Internet, who don't happen to have the same interests as the teacher?  They don't get that privilege.  They're left guessing.  If the teacher uses examples that have been talked about in class, that privileges the text and classroom experiences, not the extra education that our poorer students sometimes don't have access to.  That's why I don't talk about Batman, not because Batman freaks me out a bit.  Don't ask me why, but yes Batman freaks me out.


Anyway. We used examples from "Seventh Grade," "Thank You, M'am," and "Zebra."  The following examples are all examples of direct characterization, because it is the narrator who is giving the description, not another character.  We reminded students that even if it's the narrator who's telling, you may still have to make an inference.

  • “He looked as if he were fourteen or fifteen, frail and willow-wild, in tennis shoes and blue jeans” (31).
  • “Mr. Lucas, a portly man, waddled down the aisle” (23).
  • “He seemed vaguely menacing in the army jacket…Yet there was kindness in his eyes and ruddy features”(50).


The examples for indirect characterization come from the same stories. In the first example below, Victor is describing himself.  In the second example, Mrs. Jones is describing Roger.  It's not the narrator who's describing, it's characters, so they are both indirect characterization. 

  •  “I’m not either, but I’m better  at it than math, that’s for sure” (23).
  •   “And your face is dirty…Ain’t you got nobody at home to tell you to wash your face… “No’m,” said the boy” (31).


I found a cool chart  that uses the mnemonic STEAL to show the different ways that a narrator uses indirect characterization. Here's the link:


Bottom line?  Authors use both direct and indirect characterization to reveal a character's traits.  Knowing and understanding a character's traits can help a reader understand the characters' motives.


10 minutes

What was my motivation for teaching motives after students had already written a paragraph on motives about "Thank You, M'am?"  My motive was that they demonstrated that they didn't have a complete grasp on the concept.  They thought motives were conflict, so another lesson was needed.


We tacked this lesson onto the traits lesson.  We went back to the slide with the essential questions and re-read the essential question.  In this case, it was "What is a character's motive?"


Motives are the reasons a character has for acting the way he/she does. Again, most of the examples came from stories we've already read.

  • "Seventh Grade"
    • Why does Victor pretend that he can speak French?  His motive is that he wants to impress Teresa.
    • Why does Victor want to impress Teresa?  His motive is that he wants her to be his girlfriend this year.
  • "Thank You, M'am"
    • What is Roger's motivation for staying at Mrs. Jones' house even when he has opportunities for running?  His motive is that he wants to see what she's going to do.  She's acting strangely for someone who's just escaped an attempted robbery, so what will she do?
    • Why does Mrs. Jones' feed Roger and giveshim ten dollars?  Her motivation is that she was once young and knew what it was like to want things you couldn't have.  She sees a young man that reminds her of herself and wants to help.


Before revealing the answers to the notes, we gave students a few moments to ponder the answers.  If they have time to think about the question, rather than just being given the answer, the chances of retaining that information are higher.


Many students thought that movies were conflicts, so we cleared that up.  The character's motive can influence or cause the conflict, but it's not the conflict.  The conflict is the problem; the motive is why a character behave a certain way.


Setting Up Notebooks for Figurative Language

10 minutes

Next week, we'll be starting a mini-unit on figurative language.  My student teacher chose figurative language as her case study.  The case study requires her to give a pretest, teach a number of lessons, and give a post test to see if students have mastered the material. The pretest has already been given, and next week she'll be teaching the actual lessons on figurative language. Today we gave students a few minutes to set up their notebooks to get ready for these notes.


My students have a composition book where all their notes are kept. It includes a table of contents so students can easily find the notes they need, provided they've numbered the pages.  Some students don't realize the connection between the table of contents and page numbers yet.  Some students haven't realized the connection between having notes, studying, and doing well.  We'll get there, though.


Figurative LanguageEach type of figurative language gets its own page in the composition book.  This allows us to have a separate page for each term that students can add to as we discuss the terms throughout the year without creating a new page for the five thousand times we talk about similes and metaphors. 




5 minutes

We asked students what the difference was between direct and indirect characterization and what the difference was between a a motive and a conflict. 


We also reminded students that they would need to write summaries of both traits and motives to complete their Cornell notes.