Analyzing Characterization

Analyzing Characterization

Author: Sydney Bauer
This lesson introduces the elements of character analysis.
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Introduction to Psychology

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When you are analyzing characterization, you are analyzing how a character has been shaped within a work of fiction. It is best to analyze the characterization of each character individually first. Sometimes, after you’ve analyzed three or four characters, you begin to notice a pattern in how an author chooses to characterize the characters in that story. The author might specifically use dialogue to characterize, or actions, but it is important to isolate these concepts and avoid making assumptions about the work before you’ve looked at it closely.


Analysis of Characterization

Remember that analysis involves breaking down a subject, making observations, and then evaluating the relationship between the parts and the whole.


To analyze characterization, you break down the methods of characterization that an author uses, and then evaluate how those methods relate to each other, as well as how they relate to the end result: the character as a whole.


Step One: Choose your character.


Step Two: Tracking, which means that you will pretty much be stalking your character throughout the work of fiction.

  • Assuming you’ve read the work of fiction before, go back and skim the story. As you skim, make a note of…
    • What your character says. How does the character talk to others? What does the character say out loud?
    • What your character is known to think. It might be tempting to guess at their thoughts if they aren’t provided in the work of fiction, but stick to what’s there. What does the character think but not say? What are the character’s thoughts like?
    • What your character does. How does the character behave? What does the character do? How does the character react in situations? Where do they go and what do they do when they get there?
    • How your character interacts with others.
    • How your character is described both by the narrator and other characters in the book.


Step Three: Now that you’ve looked closely at all the methods an author might use to characterize the character you are analyzing, it’s time to begin sorting through the information you’ve gathered.


Step Two produced a breakdown of the methods of characterization; now it’s time to evaluate how they are related.


You’ll want to ask yourself the following questions:


  • What is your first impression of the character? What gave you that impression? Did your impression of that character change before the end? Why or why not? (Look back at the descriptions and the character’s thoughts and behavior)
  • How does your perception of that character compare with the narrator’s perception? Do you agree with how other characters perceive your character? (Look back at the interactions and descriptions)
  • How does the narrator want you to feel about the character? Support your answer: how do you know? (Look back at the narrator’s descriptions; if it is in first person, write about how the character perceives him or herself.)
  • What do the physical descriptions reveal about the character, and the one giving the description?
  • What role does the character play in the story? Major or minor? Protagonist or antagonist? Dynamic or static? Round or flat? How do you know? (Look for any changes in the descriptions, interactions, and behaviors of your character)
  • You might want to think about what motivates the character to behave as he or she does.


Now it’s time to create that evaluative statement about how the parts are related to or impact the whole!



Let’s look at an example!

Edgar Allen Poe’s “Tell Tale Heart”


Step one: Choose character: Narrator/main character (unnamed)

  • Story is in First Person and is the main character thinking back on the murder he committed.


Step Two:

  • What the character says: no direct dialogue until the very end of the short story. Mostly, narrator gives second-hand accounts of what he has said to others.
    • To the old man across the hall (whom he murders): The narrator says that he talks “courageously” to the man across the hall, calls him by name, uses a “hearty tone,” and asks about how the old man sleeps at night
    • To the police investigating a shriek heard from the old man’s apartment: Narrator says he was calm, confident, had nothing to hide, and talked warmly and openly with the officers, although everything he said was a lie.
    • As the sound of the heart beat in the floor increases, the narrator admits that he talked louder, faster, and began to rant and rave violently at the police officers.
    • Direct dialogue: his confessional outburst to the officers.
      “I admit the deed!—tear up the planks!—here, here!—it is the beating of his hideous heart!”

  • What the character thinks: most of the short story is the narrator’s thoughts. The narrator thinks that we (as readers) think he’s crazy. He also thinks…
    • paranoid thoughts about the old man’s “vulture eye”
    • the police are on to him, that they already know what happened and are just mocking him
    • he can hear the old man’s heart beating in under the floor boards
    • of himself as Death, determining when someone shall die
    • he is extremely clever and sane, that a crazy person wouldn’t be able to do as good of a job murdering his neighbor as he did
  • What the character does: The narrator admits that he creeps into the old man’s apartment at night (for seven nights in a row) and then murders the old man on the eighth night. He then hides the old man’s body under the floorboards of his apartment.
    • He invites the officers to look in the old man’s apartment to see that nothing has been disturbed
    • He invites the officers into his own apartment for a rest
  • Interactions: The character is kind to the old man but then stalks and murders him. He is calm and helpful to the officers until driven mad by the heartbeat he thinks he hears.
  • Descriptions: The narrator describes himself as a smart, cunning, patient, and sane individual. We do not get any descriptions about him from any other characters. We, as readers, can only see him through his own perception. It doesn’t seem like these descriptions can be trusted.
    • Narrator provides a detailed description of stalking the old man, but the murder is quick: pulls the bed on top of the old man.
    • Narrator repeatedly describes the old man as “stone dead”


Step Three

The character seems crazy immediately, and his mental state only gets worse as the story continues. The narrator is unreliable and all of the characterizations are shown through his eyes. The narrator wants readers to agree with him, and believe that he is not crazy. Much more was happening than what is presented in the story: was the character/narrator always like this, or was it the “disease” mentioned in the beginning? The story gives a glimpse at the unhinging of a man. The events that lead to the condition are a mystery. We are left to analyze an inaccurate account of bizarre behavior, and the narrator’s reaction to it all.


Had we not been privileged with a first-person account, we might have needed additional information to understand the climax of the story. It is the characterization through first person perception that creates the suspense and paranoia of this short story. We can see the madness in the narrator’s thoughts, actions, interactions, and dialogue.