If you have ever taken a literature class, you were likely taught how to analyze a character. But let’s be honest—as high school students, we likely didn’t pay as close attention as we maybe should have.
Plus, at the time, we might not have realized we wanted to become writers and readers would analyze our characters one day. In this article, I show you the different steps of how to analyze a character: what to look for, how to apply it to your writing, and as usual, provide examples.
Ready to dive in? Grab a notebook, a great writing pen, and your favorite fiction story, and let’s get into it!
Table of Contents
How To Analyze A Character: What To Look For
There are five key steps to pay attention to when learning how to analyze a character. In addition to these five however, there are two more steps we should be aware of. We’ll start with the first five:
#1 – Identify Motivation
When learning how to analyze a character, one of the most important tactics to use first is pinpointing what motivates them. Why we do what we do directly reveals our character.
For instance, if a teenage boy offers to help an elderly woman carry her groceries because she reminds him of his recently deceased grandmother, his motivation comes from grief.
However, if he offers to help because the girl next door is watching (the one he has had a crush on for the last year)…this motivation comes from an entirely different place.
#2 – Pay Attention To Actions
Similar to motivation, paying attention to a character’s actions reveals quite a bit about them. When walking into a crowded café, does the character choose a seat with his back to the wall, or sit at a table in the middle of the room?
Does she order the least expensive drink but tip well, or order an expensive coffee and neglect to leave a tip? Actions reveal the nuance in a character.
#3 – Listen To Dialogue
Read the following two lines of dialogue and infer what you can about who may have said them:
“I been hoping to meet up with ya. I seen you around and been wonderin’ if ya could tell me more about the history of this here place.”
“I’ve been hoping to meet up with. I saw you the other day in the café and noticed you’re studying history. Is there a time you may be available to explain the history of this town?”
How a character speaks reveals innumerable aspects about them, their background, and more.
#4 – What Do They Look Like?
Character descriptions can portray quite a bit about someone and their circumstances. Is he well built and stands tall? Is she tall, lanky, and stooped? Does he wear oversized clothes that appear worn and stained? Does she wear business clothes with sneakers?
Is a character sweaty and wipes their hands on their jeans before shaking someone’s hand? Do they run their hand through their styled hair before entering the building, or smash a hat on their head?
#5 – Is There Meaning In Their Name?
Authors often spend quite a bit of time naming their characters. When learning how to analyze a character, noting their name is crucial. Think of Severus Snape. Consider Lily Potter. What about Goldilocks? Rumpelstiltskin? Buddy (from the Christmas movie)?
Each name carries a drastically different emotion when read. Imagine Goldilocks’ name being Maleficent. The name would not seem to align with the character.
#6 – Noticing Person: How To Use It For Your Own Writing
We’ve discussed how to analyze a character in the above five steps, but step six drastically impacts how you can use the above tips.
When learning how to analyze a character, one of the hidden tips is noticing what the character thinks of themself or how attuned they are to their emotions. This works especially well when writing in first person. Consider the following examples:
- First Person: He looks at me with what appears to be disdain. I stand up straighter even though I feel lightheaded with fear. I wipe my hands on my jeans, thankful he can’t see the sweat on my palms.
- Third Person: He looks at her with appears to be disdain. She stands up straighter and wipes her hands on her jeans.
In the first example, we can allow readers to analyze her from a more intimate perspective—feel her lightheadedness and sweaty palms. And while third person can dive into point-of-view quite well, first person allows deep point-of-view to emerge.
In your own writing, consider what voice best allows you to leave hints to your readers as they seek to analyze your protagonist.
# 7 – Note What’s Been Done: Examples
When learning how to analyze a character well, it’s helpful to pay attention to what’s been done before. Look through the following examples and notice the versatility with how each writer formulated hints:
Still Life, Dani Pettrey
“What do you mean?” Jackson scoffed, tenderly touching his wound.
Was he intentionally trying to draw attention to his injury, to remind them he was a victim?
Notice how Pettrey lets us inside the head of the point-of-view character, who notices Jackson’s action (touching his wound) and formulates an opinion about it. The protagonist is analyzing a secondary character even as readers analyze the protagonist. Talk about analyzing inception!
Pride And Prejudice, Jane Austen
“Their eyes instantly met, and the cheeks of each were overspread with the deepest blush. He absolutely started, and for a moment seemed immovable from surprise; but shortly recovering himself, advanced towards the party, and spoke to Elizabeth, if not in terms of perfect composure, at least of perfect civility.”
Told from the omniscient viewpoint that was common to Jane Austen’s time, we still see a deep analysis of what Darcy feels upon seeing Miss Bennet at his home:
- He blushes
- He starts
- Seems immovable from surprise
- Recovers himself
- Actually moves toward Lizzy
- Speaks to her civilly
Austen reveals so much about Darcy in one (very long) sentence, as only Austen could do.
Where The Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens
Without another word, he got in his boat and motored across the lagoon. Just before entering the thick brambles of the channel, he turned and waved. She lifted her hand high above her head, and then touched it to her heart.
With two men in her life, Kya’s nonverbal communication between both Tate and Chase reveal quite a bit about what she feels for each of them throughout the story.
Without ever saying it, Owens shows that Tate means something to Kya. Something as simple as a wave can be written into a touching moment of silence between two characters.
Begin Today: Analyze Your Own Characters
Learning how to analyze a character is imperative to your writing success. It’s the depth of characters that bring readers back again and again to their favorite stories.
As a next step, go back to a character you have written previously. You could have written this character yesterday or five years ago, but choose one of your favorite scenes.
Next, pretend you are the reader now rather than the writer. What do you notice? What stands out? What should stand out?
Finally, analyze your character from the perspective of a reader so that you can teach yourself what you did well and areas you have to grow in. Best wishes with it!