How to Analyze Characters in Literature
Everyone loves English class. Each time I get up in front of a class full or freshman or sophomores (or log into a virtual class full of them), my students mob me, telling me how much they look forward to writing essays and examining literature.
Or maybe not.
Just because I love English and literature doesn’t mean that you, or any of my students, do. But that’s okay because you have me. And I’m here to help you learn how to do a character analysis.
First up - things to look at:
What is the reason the character you’re looking at acts (or fails to act)? As has been said, if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice. Why does your character make those choices? Are they ethical choices? Unethical? Made under duress? And how can you tell what that motivation is? You can look at their…
What do they do? And how do those actions affect others? Do they leap tall buildings in a single bound? Or do they slink down an alley and rob a bank? A character’s actions can tell us a lot about who that character is, just like in real life.
What does the character say? Do they seem to be educated? Do they know a lot of jargon about a particular occupation, like a police officer or a scientist? Do they know how to cast spells or what to say in the middle of a game of D&D? The words they use define them. And how they say them can also define them. Is there a Southern drawl? A twang? A burr? Do they say things are “groovy” or “phat”? A picture may be worth a thousand words, but when you don’t have a picture book, you have to look at those words very carefully.
How is the character described by others? By themselves? It can be physical descriptions or judgments made by the character him or herself, by other characters, by a narrator, or by the author. An old trick is to have a character look into a mirror; if the character does this, you may get a lot of information: age, race, gender, and so much more. Does the character need glasses? And if you have someone else describe the character, that can tell you, the reader, even more. The character may not be honest about themselves, but other people will be. Or, if it’s a really fun book, you might discover that other people lie about the character, which is always worth looking into.
What do you think of a character named “Trouble”? Or a character named “Faith”? Do you get different images in your mind? Do you make assumptions about those characters? You do! You can’t help it, and that’s on purpose. Whatever the character’s name is, look it up. Find a baby name book or website, and see what the name means, where it comes from, and any other information that might help you know more about the character’s background.
Characters can be…
Most often, the protagonist is the main character. The important characteristic of a protagonist is that they must do something; they must move the action. If a character simply lets things happen around them, they aren’t doing much, are they?
The opposing side. Antagonists try to keep the protagonist from getting what they want. Why? Well, now it’s time to look at motivation!
Major characters will show up a lot, and they may fall into one of the other categories. You may have a protagonist with three best friends; two of them may be major characters. One of them may be a foil or a dummy. You’ll have to look at how they interact to figure it out.
Minor characters come and go. They are often static, stereotypes, or flat.
Dynamic characters grow and change. Protagonists (and often antagonists) are going to be dynamic characters.
Static characters don’t change. They are the beginning from the beginning until the end of the novel. That doesn’t mean that they’re bad or not worth analyzing; their lack of change or movement may be what you look at.
Stereotypes are often the lazy way for an author to fill up a book. Who doesn’t know the geek, the jock, and the gamer? We don’t need to know anything else. A single word, and it’s all done.
Foils are there to help compare and contrast another character. Generally, foils are opposites of the characters they are with, but they may also just be weaker or stronger so that there is something to compare. If you have a master swordsman, having someone who is just learning can help show off that skill.
Dummies are there to help give information to the reader. They’re the ones who ask, “What is that?” or “How does that work?” They ask the questions for the audience so that the audience can get the information without having to feel like the author has created an “info dump.”
Characters who are well-rounded and exist. They don’t just have a single, one-sided stereotype. They exist, and you might even believe they’re real. They’re not just a jock; they’re also intelligent and like to volunteer at the food bank because their grandmother runs it. Details make the man (or woman).
Flat characters are one-dimensional and are often stereotypes. They exist, but we don’t know much about them. They may be evil or good. They don’t have any shades of grey.
Items associated with characters!
What do they own a lot of? Do they collect little glass animals? Are there always fresh cut flowers in a vase on their desk? Maybe they have a peg leg. All these little items and details matter. If a character refused to own a cell phone, would that be meaningful? As meaningful as if they constantly checked for new text messages? It may not be the item itself; it may also be the interaction with the item. (And, yes, characters who smoke, drink, and do drugs are considered to have “items” associated with them!)
Practical application – time to analyze a character!
Good Country People by Flannery O’Connor. If you haven’t read it, you should. But you can also check out a short video on YouTube made back in the 1960s. It’s only 10 minutes long, but it’s a quick view of the characters and major plot. (Do be sure to read it, too! It’s worth the time and effort!)
One of the most interesting characters in it is Hulga, whose given name was Joy. She changed her name when she went off to college. She has a prosthetic leg, a bad heart, and a Ph.D. in philosophy. She says things to her mother, who is not college educated, such as, “Malebranche was right: we are not our own light. We are not our own light!” O’Connor tells us, in the story, that “All day Joy sat on her neck in a deep chair, reading. Sometimes she went for walks but she didn’t like dogs or cats or birds or flowers or nature or nice young men. She looked at nice young men as if she could smell their stupidity.”
Good Country People: Short Video
With that much information, it’s time for a quick quiz on character analysis. What do you know about Hulga/Joy?
Dr. Davis. How to Write a Character Analysis from Teaching College English. http://www.teachingcollegeenglish.com/2008/02/28/how-to-write-a-character-analysis-and-a-personnel-review/
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