How to Write a Character Analysis in 11 Steps

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1194

The goal of a character analysis is to explain how a character’s specific traits are represented in and influence a literary work. When analyzing characters, you should evaluate how an author describes them, their actions, and their dialogue within the plot. Not every aspect of a character will be directly...

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The goal of a character analysis is to explain how a character’s specific traits are represented in and influence a literary work. When analyzing characters, you should evaluate how an author describes them, their actions, and their dialogue within the plot. Not every aspect of a character will be directly stated by the author, therefore it’s up to you to find textual evidence that supports your interpretation of the character’s disposition.     

Learning how to write a character analysis takes some effort, so to help get you started, let's review 11 steps to get you on your way. 

1. Identify the character

Before writing, you should have a basic understanding of the character you want to analyze. Several important questions to ask yourself include the following:

  • What is the character's role in the story? Is it a major or minor role?
  • Who does the character interact with? Who is important to the character?
  • What possessions does the character have? How does the character relate to them?

These are all important questions to ask yourself before you start writing. To best answer these questions, it's helpful to identify the specific types of characters and roles within a story:

Different types of characters to consider:

  • Flat character: A one-dimensional character who displays few personality traits and usually does not change throughout the text.
  • Round character: A complex character who has a distinct personality, motive, and background.  
  • Dynamic character: A character who undergoes a dramatic change over the course of the text.
  • Static character: A character who does not change over the course of the text, remaining as initially described from beginning to end.

Different types of character roles to consider:

  • Protagonist: A character who is typically the main focus of the story and faced with a conflict that needs to be resolved. Notably, the protagonist is not always the “hero.”
  • Antagonist: A character who exists to cause conflict for the protagonist.
  • Major Character: A character who is vital to the development of the plot and the resolution of conflict.
  • Minor Character: A character who supports other characters and helps move the plot forward. 

2. Take notes

Regardless of how many times you’ve read the text, skim the piece again and actively note specific scenes in which your character appears. Highlight any meaningful dialogues or descriptions provided by the author. Once you start writing, your notes will be helpful references to add textual support into your analysis.

3. Locate the character’s initial introduction

First impressions are important, and so identifying how an author introduces a character is vital to a successful character analysis. Ask yourself: How is the character first introduced by the author? What is she doing? Character introductions often provide physical descriptions that may reflect specific aspects about the character's nature. Depending of the context of the introduction, you may also gain some insight into the relationships or conflicts your character has or faces. Pay close attention to the details included in the initial descriptions, for these are all deliberate choices made by the author.   

4. Look for words repeatedly used to describe the character.

Make note of the words used to describe your character, especially if they’re repeated throughout the text. These recurring descriptions may provide insight into the character’s psychology and motivations behind the actions the character makes. For example, in John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden, Kathy is frequently referred to as having “sharp little teeth” and a “flickering tongue,” which are symbols of her snake-like monstrousness.

5. Be aware of items associated with the character.

Whether these items are part of their physical descriptions or part of a larger symbolic significance, they may express important aspects of the character, which will help you better define who your character is. A classic example is the delicate unicorn figurine in Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie. The figurine is symbolic of Laura’s own sense of hope and her own fragility.

6. Identify the character’s use of language

You can learn a lot about characters by how they communicate. For instance, a character’s language may reveal insights into her background or current livelihood. Is she educated? Does she use slang? Does her language reflect where she's from? 

In the Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, many of the characters use a colloquial, Southern dialect that includes words like “ain’t” because they’re living in Maycomb, Alabama. Scout uses language that reflects her character. She's sometimes irreverent and sometimes a hothead, and her language illustrates that: "Cecil Jacobs is a big wet he-en!"

7. Note the character’s actions and effects on others 

Actions do tend to speak louder than words. How does a character's actions affect others? Are they wise or immature? Are they selfish or considerate? A character’s behavior will often provide more insight into a character’s persona rather than physical descriptions given by the author or other characters. For instance, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is rife with the effects of one character’s actions on others. When Lydia decides to run off with the charlatan Wickham, she puts the whole family’s reputation, as well has her own, at risk, and even involves those outside her family, like Darcy.

8. Identify the character’s motivation 

As you consider the effects of your character’s internal thoughts and external actions on others, you’ll want to also consider why the character is acting or thinking in a particular way. Has the author given you any clues about the character’s past? Does she have good intentions? Do her actions reflect her morals or beliefs? For example, in Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club, Lindo Jong’s domination of her daughter Waverly can be understood, if not entirely excused, by her terrible experiences in China.

9. Consider the historical time period.

You should always put the character’s actions and thoughts in context and refrain from making modern judgments about the past. A female character living in England in the 1800s obviously could not make the choices that she could today, for both political and social reasons. The setting is a crucial component of the plot and can significantly influence character development, so develop an understanding of the historical context in which your character is a part.

10. Identify the author's attitudes

Be mindful of the author’s attitude towards the characters he or she has created. The author may be directing you toward an intended interpretation. For example, in The Scarlet Letter, the characterization that Nathaniel Hawthorne uses is certainly meant for his readers to see Hester Prynne as good and Roger Chillingsworth as evil.

11. Create an outline

At this point, you should have enough information about your character to start constructing an outline for your analysis. An outline helps organize organizing your information before starting the writing process. This is the time to refer back to your notes to find textual evidence that supports conclusions you’ve made about your character and the role she plays in the literary work. When you feel confident in your comprehension and interpretation of the text, you should be on your way to writing a successful character analysis!

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