Literature 101: Surviving Character Analysis

Every student from elementary school all the way through AP classes will have to learn how to analyze a literary character. Some students will easily pick up on imagining what it was like to be a different person in a different time period. On the other hand, many students struggle to understand what it would be like to be another person and often veer away from reading their literature assignments.

Irvine_English_Tutor_character_analysisOnce a student stops reading a book from cover to cover and starts taking shortcuts, they are in danger of lower grades and test scores, as well as a general misunderstanding of literature and reading comprehension. So how does a student learn to empathize with a character and create a successful character analysis to hand in for a grade?

1. Choose a character similar to yourself

Trying to analyze a character who is almost entirely different from oneself is not the right place to start and will frustrate students who have not learned earlier steps. Instead, they should start with a character who is like them in many ways. For example, if a student is 15 years old, female, interested in skateboarding, and living in Southern California, she should look for a literary character who is also a teen, also female, and also sporty. She can then write a character analysis without having to use too much empathy for a character she doesn’t understand (READ: “Tips Form an Orange County Tutor: Keeping Study Sessions on Track”).

2. Start small

Students who attempt to write a five paragraph, in depth character analysis without first having practiced on a smaller scale often become confused and frustrated. It’s recommended that students start with a simple 5-7 sentence, one paragraph analysis of a character in a book they’re currently reading.

3.  Make an outline

Many literary students suffer from writer’s block because they simply don’t know where to start. This is very common but can be overcome through basic organization and the creation of an outline. For example, students should consider the following questions.

A. What is the character’s age/gender?

B. What time period does the character live in?

C. What are the struggles that the character is currently facing? Most characters in literature are facing some sort of struggle so that they can grow and persevere. (Students are always encouraged to look for the struggle or difficulty that a particular character is facing.)

D. Who does the character react to and why? For the most part, characters will react differently to other characters throughout the novel. For instance, does the character always react negatively to their sibling? (In which case there might be a more complex issue with a brother or sister.) Alternatively, is a character always happy to see their next door neighbor? (A positive character bond has been identified.)  This will help students analyze the relationship between primary and secondary characters.

4. Share the analysis with a classmate or tutor

When writing the first several character analyses, it’s important for students to ask an intelligent classmate or tutor to have a look at their work. Because this will be extra work for students, it’s essential that they’re on the right track before they move on to their second and third analyses. Both study groups and educators can help students figure out what went well and what they need to improve upon and can save them from additional frustration in the future (READ: “Five Tips for Success in English Class”).

In short

Learning to analyze a character is something that will be important all the way from first grade through the end of AP classes. It’s important that students master this skill sooner rather than later so they can receive high grades on class assignments and also remain engaged in their school reading list as well as novels they read for fun.


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