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

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

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"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.

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