How to Analyze the Psychology of Literary Characters

Written by nicolle napier ionascu
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How to Analyze the Psychology of Literary Characters
Thinking about the mental health of the characters is a fun way to analyse your favourite novel. (girl reading a book image by NatJag from

Understanding literature can be challenging, but examining characters from a psychological perspective is a new and entertaining way to think about books. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) provides useful information regarding the details of specific mental illness. However, to analyse favourite literary characters from a psychological perspective, only a basic understanding of the major categories of mental illness is required.

Skill level:

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Things you need

  • Novel to analyse
  • Notepad
  • Pen
  • Coloured Post-it notes

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  1. 1

    Choose a novel to analyse. You want to choose a book that has at least one well-developed main character. The character should be in a conflict that develops throughout the story. Read your chosen novel carefully one time.

    For example, the classic novel, "Emma," by Jane Austen traces the social development of the protagonist. The reader follows how Emma's character grows and changes throughout the novel and the plot is driven by the conflicts the main character has along the way. This is a great choice because Emma is a character who interacts a great deal with those around her, making it easier to analyse the various aspects of her character.

  2. 2

    Reread the novel using your Post-it notes and pen in hand. As you move through the novel, stop and mark places where the character's tone of voice, style of dress and personality characteristics are described by the author or other characters. Hold each place with a Post-it note and write why that particular moment stood out.

    For instance, to portray underlying anxiety, an author may describe a character as speaking very quickly, or use excessive exclamation marks. Such additions to a quotation hint at panic or the racing thoughts that sometimes relate to generalised anxiety disorder.

  3. 3

    Organise your notes by broad emotional category: Create a section for aspects of your character that describe depression, anxiety, emotional instability and addiction issues. Place your notes in the appropriate category to analyse your character.

    Depressed characters will tend to have deficits in the quality of their relationships with others. Also notice when characters do not take good care of themselves or they have a negative view of life and events as these are the major components of most depressive disorders.

    Anxious characters may always seem busy and hectic. They have difficulty resting, relaxing and settling down in general. Sometimes their constant worrying and over analysing leads to impulsive decisions; or conversely, they worry so much that they have trouble making and keeping commitments.

    An emotionally unstable character tends to have greater levels of psychopathology. When analysing characters of this nature note when the authors has a character that acts in unpredictable ways and seems to push people away, despite a desire to be close to others. Emotionally unstable characters tend to have very chaotic and angst ridden interpersonal relationships.

  4. 4

    Create a character profile after choosing the category of mental illness that you believe your character best personifies. Compile the examples you gathered while reading to write a character profile in the context of mental illness.

    To enhance your character profile detail how your character looks, acts, speaks and interacts. For example, if you are arguing that a character is depressed, talk about how the author uses all aspects of the character to make this impression. A depressed individual will have a sad or angry tone of voice. They may be indifferent at times. Their depression will show in lack of variety of clothing and they may tend to isolate. Looking at all aspects of your character---physical and emotional---will make your profile richer.

Tips and warnings

  • Add depth to your analysis by doing independent research on the category of mental illness you believe your character suffers from. Basic psychology textbooks and firsthand accounts of mental illness are great sources.
  • Remember that analysing a literary character is not a substitute for studying psychology. Looking at literature in a psychological context is a way to open up news ways of thinking about books and the stories they tell.

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