Katherine has been teaching English since 2003 and currently holds an MA in liberal arts and an MA in English literature.
Everyone loves English classes. 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.
Why does the character act (or fail to act)? If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice, as the old saying goes. Why does your character make those choices? Are they ethical choices? Made under duress? What makes them do that? Their motivation.
What do they do, and how do those actions affect themselves or others? Do they leap tall buildings in a single bound? Do they slink down an alley and rob a bank? A character’s actions can tell us a lot about who that character is.
What does the character say? Is there a difference between what they say out loud and what they say to themselves? Do their thoughts match their words?
Dig deeper: 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 a game of D&D?
The words they use define them.
How they say the words 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, you can look at those words very carefully.
How is the character described by others? By themselves?
This includes physical descriptions or judgments made by the character themselves, 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 from a visual standpoint.
If someone else describes the character, that can tell you, the reader, even more. The character may not be honest about themselves, but other people will be.
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. Sometimes the author hides a lot of information in the name.
Characters Can Fall Into Distinct Categories
The protagonist is the main character. The important characteristic of a protagonist is that they must do something; they must make the action happen. If a character simply lets things happen around them, they are not a protagonist.
The opposing side. Antagonists try to keep the protagonist from getting what they want. Look at their 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.
Dynamic characters grow and change. Protagonists (and often antagonists) are going to be dynamic characters.
Foils are there to help compare and contrast with 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).
Minor characters come and go. They are often static, stereotypes, or flat.
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.
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.
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.)
Help Writing Your Character Analysis
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?
For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.
- She’s happy with her life.
- She likes to show off.
- She's arrogant.
- She's intelligent.
- She cares about what others think about her.
- She's a loner.
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/
Anonymous Person lol on March 24, 2019:
This is good I learnt it in class
Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on June 08, 2015:
This was a great hub that every hub writer can relate to. Thanks for sharing. Voted up for useful!
AJ Long from Pennsylvania on May 08, 2014:
Thanks for the great tips on creating great characters KatSanger! Thanks! :o)
Prasanna Marlin from Sri lanka on October 29, 2012:
Great information, Very Interesting!
Congratulations on HOTD!
CZCZCZ from Oregon on October 29, 2012:
Great article and congrats on getting hub of the day for it. The table describing character types is an excellent resource packed with information.
jenbeach21 from Orlando, FL on October 29, 2012:
Great information. As someone who is contemplating going back to school for literature, this is really helpful!
Ms. Immortal from NJ on October 29, 2012:
Great information, thanks so much. Congrats!
James C Moore from Joliet, IL on October 29, 2012:
I liked the organized format that you presented. It is done in a brief concise manner that makes for easy reading.
Klavdija Frahm on October 29, 2012:
During my study I loved literature and analysis of characters and I still do, I try to read as much as possible and I love to analyse literature. Great hub, voted up, interesting.
John Sarkis from Winter Haven, FL on October 29, 2012:
I love literature and enjoyed your article very much. Congrats on winning HOTD!
Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on October 29, 2012:
Excellent article on character anaylsis and how to do it. I like your approach and your presentation. Congratulations on winning HOTD! Well deserved!
JP Carlos from Quezon CIty, Phlippines on October 29, 2012:
I never really enjoyed my English class specifically because of this. I wish you had written this hub 20 years ago. It might pull my grades up.
H Lax on October 29, 2012:
Thanks! I need a refresher on characters because I am about to start writing a short story and it's been a while! Great hub!
Lisa from WA on October 29, 2012:
Great article! I'm probably one of those rare students who always loved reading and literature so, luckily, I never had too many problems doing character analysis.