The characters who populate a narrative and participate in its various events are often among the most compelling elements of that narrative. On some occasions they may well be the primary reason we cherish that narrative so much and find ourselves returning to it so often. Whether the character in question is Homer’s Odysseus, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, John Milton’s Satan, Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch or any of the countless other literary figures who have taken up residence in our mental and emotional architecture, it is because we care so deeply about them and find them so profoundly fascinating that we almost always prefer those narratives in which these kinds of gripping figures appear over those which may in outline tell much the same story but by way of less memorable characters.

What we think and feel about a narrative’s individual characters, then, plays an enormous role in determining how we respond to and interpret that narrative as a whole. This is why we must – and usually do – pay them so much attention. At the same time – and this, unfortunately, is something we tend not to do quite so often – it also explains why we should subject our responses to individual characters to especially careful scrutiny.

Before we go any further, then, let us make two crucial points of principle crystal clear:

  1. Characters in literature (or film or any other form of art) are not real people
  2. We cannot know literary characters directly for ourselves; we are entirely dependent for our sense of who they are, why they behave in the way they do, and what they think and feel, on what the narrative tells us about them

It is absolutely vital you keep these two points in mind whenever you set out to analyse a character. It is vital, too, that you never lose sight of these points during the course of your analysis. (If you wish to read more about why these two statements are true – and so importantly true – click on the relevant links above).

To conduct an analysis of a literary character accordingly requires us to do much more than merely establish what we think he or she is like, or why they think, speak or act in the way they do. It requires us long before we even reach that point to ask: how do we know what we think we know about this character? And, how is this character presented to us in the narrative? It requires us, that is, to attend to the narrative’s techniques of characterisation. If you click on that link, you will be taken to a list of some of the most common forms of characterisation employed in works of narrative literature, along with some tips on how to analyse a particular narrative’s particular enactment of those techniques.

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