Analysing characters in English texts

Throughout your secondary English studies, you’ll read numerous novels and other texts. Knowing how to analyse key characters is a valuable skill for essay writing and exam preparation.

teacher explaining to a class how to analyse characters in English text
Geoff Peel BA, DipEd, BEd, MEd, GradCertTESOL, GradCertCorpManagement, AdvDipSchoolMarketing Monday, 21 October 2019

There are many elements in a novel. These include the setting (time and place), plot, theme and characters. The role of characters and how they are represented is an interesting and valuable study of a text. 

As well as helping you to understand the novel for general essay and exam responses, character analysis is a specific skill that often becomes the focus of essay questions. The task of analysing a character can be undertaken in many ways. To help you get started, here is one approach to consider. In this model, the analysis can be divided into five characteristics that can be studied in a systematic process.

1. Physical

As you read any novel, your mind builds up an image of the physical appearance of each character. This is informed by both the author’s words and your own imagination.  When you study a central character, find evidence in the novel to describe the following aspects of their appearance:

  • Their name
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Ethnicity
  • Height and weight
  • Hair colour and style
  • Health
  • Posture and gestures
  • Type of clothing 

If the author doesn’t provide much physical information about the character, this could be significant in itself. Consider why the author might prefer to leave the character’s physical appearance to the imagination or each reder. 

2. Speech

A character’s voice and speech are key parts of their personality. In terms of speech, consider whether they have an accent, distinctive vocal qualities or a particular pronunciation of words. Is their vocabulary extensive or limited? Is their speech articulate and grammatically correct? Find quotes from the text to support and inform your conclusions on this aspect of character analysis.

3. Demographic

Identify the socio-economic status of the character in terms of their occupation, education, where they live (location and type of accommodation), wealth or otherwise, family members, and any historical background.

4. Emotional

Carefully go back through the text and build up an emotional profile of the character.  Find evidence of their likes/dislikes, religious views, political position, ambitions, hopes and prejudices. Consider whether the character is happy and content or, conversely, if they are troubled. Conflicts between characters are key elements of a novel, so identify examples of where their emotions both reflect and create any conflict.

5. Traits

By revealing personality traits, an author can allow the reader to observe the complexities of key characters. One important trait to identify is the morals and values of the individual. Other aspects that can be measured in a character are their degrees of sincerity, warmth, energy, mood, enthusiasm, humility and sense of humour.

Bringing it all together

Undertaking a systematic analysis as outlined here will allow you to respond authoritatively and with confidence to a character-focussed essay question. You’ll also develop a greater understanding of the character’s perspective and the specific role they play in the novel. Having built up the supporting evidence of quotes and references to the text, you’ll extend your initial mental image of the character into one that is clearly defined by the author through their actions, thoughts and words.

 

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