After identifying the narrative point of view and discussing possible thematic seeds at the beginning of a novel or play, we begin analyzing the characters who inhabit the story. In general, authors establish characters by what they do (i.e. action), what they say (i.e. dialogue), and how they look (i.e. description).
Sometimes authors give us a bevy of information when introducing a character; other times we have to piece together our initial portrait over several pages and chapters. Ultimately, we should get a clear picture of the major characters over the first third of the novel or play. For the remainder of the work we then look for significant or subtle changes in those characters. The most important characters are usually dynamic and undergo some kind of transformation whereas static characters remain largely the same from beginning to end. In E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, he describes dynamic characters as "round" and static characters as "flat."
One way of studying characterization is to have students work in groups at the beginning of a story to focus on a particular character over the first third of the novel or play. After they have gathered evidence to support their claims, they present their character portraits to the rest of the class through a poster project or PowerPoint presentation, such as the one we have students do when reading Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake.
When there are multiple groups presenting the same character in a large class, we discuss the subtle differences in each group's character statement and the various quotes they use to support their claims. While different groups present, students in the audience should fill out their own characterization matrix to prepare for the final essay.
At times it may be beneficial to analyze characters in isolation, but other times it is important to compare and contrast characters. For instance, at the beginning of Henrik Ibsen's play A Doll's House, we find an exchange between Nora and Torvald that reflects their respective attitudes towards gender roles and societal expectations in 19th century Norway. To understand Nora's radical transformation over the course of the play, we first have to understand the unhealthy foundation on which their marriage rests. In many ways, Nora and Torvald are playing roles that their society demands of them. Ibsen implies that neither of them is living an honest or authentic life, which students should recognize in the artificiality of the opening exchange in the play.
Sometimes authors juxtapose two characters to help convey larger themes in the work. The 2008 AP Literary Argument prompt describes a literary foil as a minor character that "possesses traits that emphasize, by contrast or comparison, the distinctive characteristics and qualities of the main character. For example, the ideas or behavior of the minor character might be used to highlight the weaknesses or strengths of the main character." In Oedipus Rex, Sophocles creates Creon—Jocasta's thoughtful, calm, rational brother—to stand in stark contrast to the proud, emotional Oedipus, the play's protagonist. After introducing the concept of literary foils to students, we have them work in small groups to complete a Venn diagram comparing and contrasting the way Oedipus confronts the crisis in Thebes compared to Creon.
We want students to recognize not just how Oedipus' flaws contribute to his downfall, but how Sophocles uses Creon to provide an alternative way to think and act, especially for a leader confronting a crisis. When students write their final essays, they should focus on the lessons they learn from Oedipus' demise, but they should also consider how Creon serves as counter-example to reveal Sophocles' overall theme.
Occasionally, we need to compare and contrast three different characters in a novel or play. For instance, in Alice Walker's The Color Purple, we are given three prominent women—Shug, Sofia, and Nettie—who are all instrumental in helping Celie discover her own strength and self-worth. In order to compare and contrast these characters and their respective influence on Celie, students work in groups to complete a three-way Venn diagram:
We emphasize with our students that authors create characters not just to populate their stories, but also to convey their themes. For us to understand the deeper meaning of any literary work, we have to understand the development of characters not just in isolation, but also in their relationship with others. How characters evolve based on those relationships ultimately reveals the work's theme and helps us better understand and articulate "the meaning of the work as a whole."