Character analysis is a form of literary theory that attempts to explain the role and purpose of a character-forming part of a narrative by examining their actions and how they are portrayed through the lens of the work we are looking at. This is done to determine how the themes are explored and how the character in question relates to the rest of the thing we are analyzing. Although it originated in literary theory, it is also applicable to film criticism, theater, television, and even music. It is often used in academic settings to test the student’s ability to see through the author’s intentions in representing a character the way they did.
When talking about character analysis, we have to make sure not to confuse it with a character study, which is a type of media that looks deep into a character’s mind to explore them philosophically. Examples of this are the book “Crime and Punishment” by Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the movie “Joker” by American director Todd Philips or the music album “After Hours” by Canadian singer Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye. This article will give you the tools necessary to get into character analysis, be it for your schoolwork or your enjoyment of your favorite movie.
How it Works as a Writer?
When you start to write something, it usually is the culmination of an idea forming in your head. That usually leads to a story, a theme, a concept, a gimmick, or something that becomes the driving force of the work you are planning. In this process, the characters sometimes come second to the rest of the idea. You are not concerned with your main character’s maiden’s backstory when thinking about your idea of exploring war in the modern day. Characters are often an afterthought, especially in classic literature, and this makes character analysis a task that necessitates you to look deeply into the author’s intentions.
That is because, usually, a good cast of characters is deeply rooted in the main themes of the work, and to understand, for example, the main character, you have to get deep into how the story you are experiencing is trying to send you a message. This message is codified using different elements within the fictional world you see in the pages or frames of the media you are analyzing. This can be done using all the different instruments the medium has to communicate its messages to a spectator.
Looking at some Examples
For example, when you are looking at a movie like The Room (2003, Tommy Wiseau), bad as it may be, it is a great example for looking at how you can get into a creator’s headspace and know that the character is about. If you are not aware, The Room is a movie about “Johnny,” a financial executive looking for a promotion (sort of?). It was produced, directed, written by the same guy, who also stars in the movie, so it is an unlikely but perfect example of how creative control provides the artist with the chance to express himself to the best of his abilities.
Let’s write a single paragraph about Johnny, shall we?
Johnny is the attempt by Tommy Wiseau to self-insert himself into his story. Based on the movie’s plot, we can say that Johnny’s role is to be someone with excellent intentions that nonetheless fails to see how the people around him are always keeping information from him and, in some ways, taking advantage of him and his good nature. When we are thinking about the conclusion the movies have for Johnny, we see that Tommy Wiseau is a man trying to explore his sense of isolation from the world around him. At least at the time of writing the movie, I thought change was impossible, and death was preferable. Johnny is, because of this, a character that is constantly trying to smile at the darkness of the world, but that is ultimately incapable of facing the things he is trying to ignore. Friendship, love, and personal tragedy are meaningless to a guy incapable of being understood or respected by anyone.
Okay. We have just made a character analysis of the main protagonist of one of the worst movies of all time, and if I do say so myself, we made it sound a lot more smart and interesting than the actual act of watching the movie entails.
Besides any art criticism, when we analyze a part of someone’s work, we are ultimately using the semantic components of their artistic expression to explore our psyche. This means that the understanding we have of a work of art is ultimately tied to how we relate to its themes. Book reports may seem boring and pointless, but they are a legitimately great opportunity for self-reflection that can and often lead to you learning something you didn’t previously know about yourself.
Now, I know our previous example is a bit funny, but what we are trying to do here is to make you understand that character analysis is a creative thing in itself. You can’t or at least shouldn’t approach it mathematically. It is not a process with strict rules you have to follow, and it is very likely that if you do it, you are just going to end up writing something boring. Even when doing homework, always strive never to write something you wouldn’t want to read yourself if you had a choice.
Now that we have looked at a wacky example, let’s try to go at something a bit more elevated in the fields of culture. We will look at good old William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare shows us what happens in Lord Macbeth’s life and his mind in the classic play Macbeth. We need to look at how Shakespeare uses monologues to tell us what is going on in Macbeth’s mind and how important his dialogue is to understand what is happening in our story on a thematic level. Let us try to analyze him.
Macbeth is trying to explore the concept of ambition in human life, how striving to achieve something better is what drives us, sometimes to the peak of our lives, and oftentimes to our downfall. Macbeth was a man turned crazy by his desire to have more power. Still, it reached a point where he was incapable of looking beyond his own goals and ended up being consumed by the consequences of the evil he was capable of doing to be more powerful. At the end of the play, we see how his life ended up amounting to bloodshed and suffering, in his emblematic phrase:
“Life is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”
Life’s meaninglessness hits Macbeth at this point of his life when he is about to lose everything he fought so hard to attain and maintain. His enemies’ forces are right outside his gates, and there is nothing he can do but reflect on the journey he has taken to achieve immortality. The impossibility of this task is what drives the final act of the play, where Shakespeare is trying to tell us about how the forces of evil are not capable of ultimately giving us that which our hearts desire
It is maybe not a controversial statement to say that Shakespeare was a better writer than Tommy Wiseau. Still, here we can see how referencing the work in meaningful ways can add to the point we are trying to make about the analyzed work at hand. The author’s style to pull off in position is important when trying to point out how the original work was trying to send a message through its characters.
With these two previous examples, we have seen how an artist can codify their intentions into compelling pieces of narrative sparks, that when done right, can signify a lot by just saying a few words. It is the analyst’s task to dive deep into the intricacies of the text’s ideas and look, like a hungry shark smelling blood, all the different layers of character writing that often go into writing even the simplest of characters.
To Pimp a Butterfly
In our last example, we will look at Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, and we will analyze this classic piece of hip-hop music as a character study of Kendrick himself. It may seem strange trying to analyze a music album, but this is something that, in concept albums with the scope of To Pimp a Butterfly, is not as far-fetched a concept as it may seem at first glance. Kendrick Lamar manages to pack a story full of different characters and concepts that slowly progress to a message of black power and self-love, and there is a lot to be analyzed across the 16 tracks in this album.
For example, we have a clear nod to the music industry’s superficiality when inducing black artists into it. From the perspective of an aspiring musician who is just landing his first big record contract, Kendrick tells us how the world seems comfortable to conquer and how lies, misinformation, and manipulation ultimately lead to the artist’s downfall and fall into obscurity. If you can’t see what this says about Kendrick’s position as hip-hop’s savior, then you are not looking at it hard enough.
We also have the sequence when after an emotional breakdown, Kendrick returns to his home in Compton, trying to reconnect with his roots in an attempt to run away from the trappings of an industry and celebrity status that have taken him outside of the things he used to love as a younger man.
The amount of pressure on Kendrick’s shoulders is what grounds him in the real world and keeps him from getting into celebrity culture’s highs. Every one of these concepts is the thing that is explored in the lyrics of this album. We cannot forget that winning a Pulitzer prize is someone we must take seriously as a creator. Not doing so is not recognizing some of the voices speaking up against some of the things we worry about today far earlier than anyone else.
In this section, we have looked at three different works of art and analyzed the central figure of the story by drawing a bit from the history we know of the author and drawing parallels with the times they lived in, and doing this can lead us to a deeper understanding of a character’s emotions and ultimate role in the story of our interest. We must not forget about what a character’s development speaks to the personal vision of our author.
Now that we have looked at examples from across different kinds of cultures, we will take a look back and examine what mechanisms can be used to analyze a piece of art, providing examples along the way to illustrate better the methods by which we can reach different conclusions by just approaching the truth from a different angle.
Types of character analysis
- Authorial: In this category, we look at an author’s life and determine how much of his writing of a certain character is ultimately based on their own life, providing us with the sort of evidence that we need to mark the intentions of the said creator by portraying things the way they did. An amazing example of this can be found analyzing The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky once we have internalized that Dostoyevsky had an addiction that made him really miserable during a significant part of his life. This tells us something important about how he sees game that can give us a leap into his head when writing a story that involves it. To use this kind of analysis, we have to do an in-depth biographical investigation to truly grasp what the author was really thinking when they started using a particular language to refer to a set type of circumstances. This is really important when we are looking at novels when the author’s experiences sometimes get mixed within the story to let the reader or viewer go deep into the feelings they experienced at the time.
- Contextual: By this technique, we can get into what the character has to do with the story built around them. This method is especially useful when looking at a secondary character not as represented in the story as some other ones. For example, in The Lord of The Rings, we could (and some people have done it) write dozens of pages analyzing the role someone like Boromir has in the overall story. Although it may seem so small as to be insignificant, it ends up doing something exciting the themes of fighting evil in whatever form it may adopt, as well as the ways it has to corrupt people that would otherwise be good. The protagonists of The Lord of The Rings are Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, and Aragorn, so it may seem useless to look at a minor character like Boromir. Still, it is precisely because of his small role in the story that we can look at how it ultimately relates to the message that J.R.R. Tolkien was trying to say through many different ways and hidden clues. This is also a way of analyzing that paves to way into more profound ways of looking at art. When we have to look at a part of a story that does not add up, we need to start looking at how it relates to the rest of the piece before drawing premature conclusions.
- Technical: This type of character analysis centers itself around the idea of analyzing the role that the character plays in the story through strictly practical terms, that is, to only take into account the function the character serves to the story and how it needs a specific figure to guide the plot into a particular direction that is not attainable without the use of a type of character. For example, we can look at Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series. Albus Dumbledore is a mentor figure that appears in the story to give exposition (this is creative argot when we want to say that a character’s dialogue is just explaining concepts about the plot that the audience may not be able to understand by themselves) or to provide Harry with the necessary clues for him to know what to do in the future. This archetype is useful when what we are trying to do is have our main character learn something, and it is often used in stories when we are as lost as the protagonist in the fictional world of the page. It has its base on the works of psychologist Carl Jung, who theorized that the way we use our head to interact with the world is ultimately grounded in the ways we interpret the world, intimately connected with culture.
- Abstract: a creative form of character analysis puts all of the weight of writing an engaging text into the person analyzing. This kind of research centers itself around how a certain instrument of the story relates to the reader. For example, imagine a study of Vito Corleone’s character (The Godfather, 1962. dir. Francis Ford Coppola) as seen by someone comparing Marlon Brando’s performance with their own father. This type of analysis is deeply personal and intimate to the person writing the piece, and reading them can give us a deep dive into how we relate to other people through their own way of looking at the world and the people living in it. Vito Corleone is, obviously, not their father. Still, when we take into account the amount of abstraction that inherently goes into watching a movie, it becomes easy to see how a viewer can project a part of themselves into the fictional world and feel as if that exists on the screen is a reflection of that which they have lived outside of it.
- Metaphorical: This is a type of story that is constructed to explore a big idea through many different individual characters. The use of metaphors does this. This is the use of a completely removed concept from the literal meaning of the words used in a certain description to represent a different kind of thing that reflects a deeper creative truth about the work of art we are at the moment analyzing. We can take a look inside an author’s head that art criticism and analysis live for. We can surmise every meaning a writer, director, or actor is trying to put forward in a work of art and then give them our own spin to get deeper inside the many paths someone can take to say the same thing. An example of this can be the TV show Twin Peaks, masterminded by David Lynch and Mark Frost in the nineteen-nineties, where every character is used as a way of communicating a different part of the show’s ultimate messaging, a message that is sometimes lost on the viewer because they attempt to use the literal part of the message to recodify it and understanding it. Creators like Lynch advise against this practice because it takes too much away from the viewing experience that, in his opinion, has to rely on instincts and clues to create the whole experience inside their head. This particular type of character analysis can, in itself, be categorized further into a bigger set of ways of analyzing. Some of these are:
- Moral: With this specific type of character analysis, we are trying to conclude as to what is the moral compass the author is setting their characters, and this is useful when we are analyzing a piece of religious or spiritual writing. In a book like Siddhartha by the German writer and Nobel Prize for Literature winner Hermann Hesse, we can analyze how the various characters’ actions relate to Buddhist philosophy’s moral principles. If we intend to do this, we have to know the principles that guide the tenants of this religion and then tactful enough to know how to apply them in the story’s context to better understand the narrative.
- Political: In this one, the central question is the political ideology discussed in the story, even when it is not explicitly named. Examples of these are everywhere in popular culture, with exponents such as Animal Farm, from the English writer George Orwell, who was trying to make a commentary about the Russian revolution and what it meant for global communism as a whole. Another example is the Russian writer Ayn Rand with her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, who was trying to put forward the ideas of objectivism, a right-wing libertarian sort of ideology she helped popularize the west. In this last example, it becomes impossible to look at the character of Howard Roark without having in mind the fact that he was conceived as the embodiment of objectivist philosophy and that every choice he makes during the course of the narrative is an extension of what the author thought a character of his type would ideally make in that situation.
Having reached the end of this article, we hope you have learned a thing or two about character analysis; how important it is to understand any literary work, and how crucial it becomes to understand a writer’s intentions with their artistry. Character analysis is the primary unit of our literary reading, and without it, there would be no way to get into the headspace necessary to enjoy our favorite things. Imagine a Disney movie without a kid orphan as the main character or a Disney princess older than 19. These archetypes have a way of expressing emotions deep in our psyche and making it easier to work through them in meaningful ways.
All of this is to the purpose of us saying that, when your teachers ask you to talk about the characters found in Wuthering Heights, don’t dismiss the task as meaningless right away, and at least make an attempt to pierce the true meaning of the decisions and dialogues someone probably suffered a lot to decide over when writing it. It could all make sense with a bit of time, and you will feel as if every part of the effort was worth your time.
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