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What is the difference between the formalistic approach and the psychological approach to character analysis? My teacher has assigned us to write a character analysis using one of four commonly known approaches to character analysis, yet we have never really gone over the differences in our class. 

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litelle209 eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Hi, yes this may be a little hard to do without explanation. Let's see. A psychological approach takes into account why characters do what they do in a narrative. For instance, someone may lie because he/she is afraid of punishment. The whole school of criticism rose to prominence with the writings of Sigmund Freud at the turn of the nineteenth century, but was later amended by predominantly French thinkers such as Jaques Lacan and a number of feminists. When writing a character analysis that takes a psychological approach you can begin with looking at feelings, childhood experiences, motivations, connections to other characters among a number of things. It may also be helpful to consider when the text was written. If it is a modern text written within roughly the last fifty years or so, chances are the author may have deliberately or unconsciously incorporated Freudian insights.

Formalism is a little more tricky. Originating in the 1920's and driven by a desire to make the study of literature more scientific, Formalists are interested in the structure of language in a given text. Even though you did not mention what grade or year of school you are in, I assume that your teacher is simply asking you to take a closer look at the language in the text and analyze it for rhetorical figures for instance and consider how certain elements play into the overall effect of the narrative. It seems unlikely that you have to do a truly formalist analysis since it is more a theoretical approach one studies in graduate school.

You can, of course, combine the two and look for how certain states of mind are translated into language. Good Luck.


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kc4u | Student

The formalistic approach to literature would pay more attention to the form than the content of a text and thus the formalistic approach to character analysis will examine a character as a structural trope in the narrative. It will be a formally driven characterological analysis where a rationally constructed modular process would be applied to determine the traits that make up the form of a character. Issues like a stock-form (a hen-pecked husband) or an innovative one would crop up. What role does the character play in the formal (plot) construction of the narrative and to what extent does it contribute to its generic ideology would be another matter of concern.

The psychological approach to a character would be internally oriented. Instead of looking at what happens to the plot (on the outer level) and what events a given character is involved in, the psychological approach will concentrate on the mindscape of a character and its inner happenings, the automatic thought-processes at work and so on. It will try to determine the unconscious motivations behind a character's action and explain a character's psyche in terms Freudian categories Id, Ego and Super-ego or better still, Lacanian categories of Real, symbolic and Imaginary.

An instance of the former can be Vladimir Propp's work on Russian folk tales while Freud's essay on Lady Macbeth is a good example of the latter.