What are some words and phrases that help the reader gain understanding of someone's personality?

1 Answer | Add Yours

caledon's profile pic

caledon | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted on

"Personality" is basically the series of things that distinguish each individual. In literature this largely has to do with a character's means of expressing (or not expressing) themselves, such as their dialogue and their opinions. Real personality extends to things like clothing style as well, but in a book we may have to remember or be reminded of this, which is more tedious than simply letting the character speak their personality.

Some of the most direct personality-setting phrases are the ones in which the character is announcing their feelings. For example;

  • "I feel", "I believe", "I think", "I should"
  • "We must" "You ought to" "There should be"

Stories about a character's past are also insights into their personalities: "I remember when," or "When I was younger".

The most helpful individual words are probably adjectives, such as arrogant, hardworking, chatty, greedy.

However, personality in literature is often complex, and built out of subtleties; it is rare that you will find a character who is so straightforward as to essentially say "let me tell you about my personality". For example, consider this revealing passage from Beowulf:

More I hear, that the monster dire,

in his wanton mood, of weapons recks not;

hence shall I scorn—so Hygelac stay,

king of my kindred, kind to me!

Beowulf has heard that Grendel doesn't use weapons, so he vows not to use weapons either; by doing so, Hygelac, his king, will "stay kind" to him. From this simple statement we learn several things about Beowulf;

  • He values military intelligence and uses it to inform his battle plans; he is a careful person.
  • By rejecting the use of weapons, he shows that he is self-confident, sporting, and fearless all at once.
  • By taking Hygelac's favor into consideration, he is making long-term plans and finding ways to extract the most from every opportunity. He is as much a businessman as a warrior.
  • By announcing the reason for his actions, he makes himself accountable to the other men, indirectly addressing the suspicion that he is doing this just to be boastful. Beowulf is a sociable person who knows how others think, and he guards himself against treachery.

However I don't think any of the words or phrases in this passage could be directly identified as being any more or less responsible for conveying Beowulf's personality.


We’ve answered 319,622 questions. We can answer yours, too.

Ask a question