How to Analyze Characters in Literature

Updated on September 27, 2012
 "Modern Book Printing" (detail), fourth sculpture (from six) of the Berlin Walk of Ideas
"Modern Book Printing" (detail), fourth sculpture (from six) of the Berlin Walk of Ideas | Source

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:

Motivation

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…

Actions!

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.

Words!

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.

Descriptions!

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.

Names!

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…

Character Type
Description
 
Protagonists
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?
 
Antagonists
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
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
Minor characters come and go. They are often static, stereotypes, or flat.
 
Dynamic
Dynamic characters grow and change. Protagonists (and often antagonists) are going to be dynamic characters.
 
Static
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
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
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
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.”
 
3 Dimensional
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
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!)

Portrait of American writer Flannery O'Connor from 1947.
Portrait of American writer Flannery O'Connor from 1947. | Source

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?

view quiz statistics

References

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/

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      This was a great hub that every hub writer can relate to. Thanks for sharing. Voted up for useful!

    • ajwrites57 profile image

      AJ 

      4 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Thanks for the great tips on creating great characters KatSanger! Thanks! :o)

    • prasonline profile image

      Prasanna Marlin 

      5 years ago from Sri lanka

      Great information, Very Interesting!

      Congratulations on HOTD!

    • CZCZCZ profile image

      CZCZCZ 

      5 years ago from Oregon

      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 profile image

      jenbeach21 

      5 years ago from Orlando, FL

      Great information. As someone who is contemplating going back to school for literature, this is really helpful!

    • Cathy Fidelibus profile image

      Ms. Immortal 

      5 years ago from NJ

      Great information, thanks so much. Congrats!

    • justthemessenger profile image

      James C Moore 

      5 years ago from The Great Midwest

      I liked the organized format that you presented. It is done in a brief concise manner that makes for easy reading.

    • Klavdija Frahm profile image

      Kendi 

      5 years ago from Slovenia

      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 profile image

      John Sarkis 

      5 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Hi, KatSanger,

      I love literature and enjoyed your article very much. Congrats on winning HOTD!

      John

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      5 years ago from Taos, NM

      Excellent article on character anaylsis and how to do it. I like your approach and your presentation. Congratulations on winning HOTD! Well deserved!

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 

      5 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      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.

    • HoneyBB profile image

      H Lax 

      5 years ago

      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!

    • LisaKoski profile image

      Lisa 

      5 years ago from WA

      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.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)