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What Is Character Analysis?

Bobby R. Goldsmith
Bobby R. Goldsmith

Character analysis is the scholarly examination of the physical, social, psychological, and ancillary elements of a character within a fictional text. A character analysis is one of the central elements of basic literary scholarship and is a featured aspect of most schools of criticism, including formalist, post-modernist, deconstructionist and Marxist theory. A character analysis can encompass all elements of a character given in a text, or it may focus on one or two elements only. A thorough analysis may also include hypothetical commentary that questions aspects of a character that are not explicitly given within a text.

Most types of character analysis focus on the character's conflict within the narrative of the text. The scholar may consider who or what the character is struggling against and whether this struggle provides the character with a static or dynamic nature. A static character does not change physically or psychologically in the midst of a conflict. A dynamic character, on the other hand, is explicitly altered in some way by the struggle or conflict. A character analysis will likely discuss and analyze the nature of the conflict and the changes that it engenders in the character.

Character analysis is key to basic literary scholarship.
Character analysis is key to basic literary scholarship.

A character analysis will also focus on specific traits, such morality, motivation, temperament and perspective. These traits compel the character to act. The literary scholar might examine whether the character acts morally or ethically within the context of the society presented in the narrative and how events in that narrative shape and are shaped by the character's actions.

A literary scholar can also incorporate a specific type of criticism in a character analysis. The same character can be examined through different critical lenses. For example, a formalist scholar might examine how a character's dialogue and interaction with other characters shape the narrative and what the language the author uses reveals about that character. A Marxist scholar, on the other hand, might look at that same character and see other traits of the character based upon social and political elements within and beyond the narrative.

While the basics of a character analysis focus on character traits and the interactions of the character, such an analysis is not necessarily confined to these considerations. Often, the moral and ethical framework of the critic is incorporated into the analysis, either intentionally or accidentally, in order to place the character's story in a wider context for readers. The elements of a good character analysis invariably incorporate the judgments and biases of the scholar conducting the analysis, though collective critical consensus evens out disparities over time.

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Discussion Comments


@KoiwiGal - It would actually be really interesting to find a real analysis of the main character in Memento. It's easy to find character analysis essays on Shakespeare characters but I think it's easier to teach kids the process if you use modern movies and books.

You can analyze any character really, even ones that aren't very well made, since pointing out why they aren't well made is just as important as pointing out the good characteristics of fictional characters.


@croydon - I could see that being an interesting story, as long as it wasn't gimmicky. It would have to be a real revelation about the character without being some kind of smoke and mirror's tactic where the truth is concealed for no reason except the bang at the end.

A perfect example, in my mind, is the movie Memento. That main character was complex and haunting and he never changed because he was basically physically incapable of change. He was essentially a static character. But the audience perspective of him changed and that's what made it interesting. You might argue the same thing for Kevin Spacey's character in The Usual Suspects, although that one had more of a "whizz, bang" flavor to it at the end, rather than a real revelation of deep character.


The use of static versus dynamic characters was the topic of one of my writing group meetings a while ago. We decided something that I found quite interesting, that static protagonists can be OK sometimes.

Most of the time I would argue that you absolutely need a dynamic character as a protagonist as change is the point of most stories. You want the character to struggle, to sacrifice and most likely, to ultimately succeed and change in the process. Otherwise, there isn't much point to the book or movie. Often, a story-line is criticized because all that happens is a character goes from place to place and isn't changed at all. And that's boring.

However, if you have a static character who manages to change the reader, even if he, himself, isn't changed, that's a whole other thing. If you read a story in which you think one thing about a character at the beginning and another thing at the end, then that character has caused change, even if the character himself doesn't change. And to me, that's interesting.

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    • Character analysis is key to basic literary scholarship.
      By: Dmytro Sukharevskyy
      Character analysis is key to basic literary scholarship.