The purpose of a character analysis essay is to not only demonstrate to your instructor that you have read an assigned story or novel, but also to enhance your knowledge and awareness of the psychological factors that make people "tick." This, in turn, can lead to an analysis of your own attitudes and behaviours in similar circumstances and help you to recognise who or what influences the future choices you will make in school, at work or in relationships.
Select a character who interests you. The opening paragraph of your essay should introduce who this character is, briefly explain what her role is in the story and why you have chosen to analyse her personality. Example: "The character I have chosen for study from Eileen Favorite's novel, 'The Heroines,' is Penny Entwhistle, a rebellious teen whose mother runs a boarding house frequented by feisty females straight from the pages of fiction. Not only do I personally relate to what it's like having parents who do weird things, but I'm also an avid reader and have often wondered what I'd say and do if my own favourite book characters ever came to life."
Define your chosen character in terms of whether he is the protagonist (hero), antagonist (villain), supporting player (a helpmate of either the hero or villain) or a catalyst. A catalyst character (also referred to as an agent for change) often does not participate directly in any of the action, but instead fulfils the role of inspiring the lead character to take up a cause or quest he might otherwise not have pursued (for example, Spider-Man's kindly uncle who gets killed early in the story would fit this definition).
Make a list of your character's positive traits as well as the weaknesses and flaws that he must overcome throughout the course of the story. Keep in mind that heroes are never 100 per cent "good," and villains are never 100 per cent "bad." Accordingly, if you choose to analyse the personality of the villain (for example, Iago in "Othello"), identify specific influences and events that led this person down a path of evil.
Identify your character's core quest. The quest is what makes up the conflict, creates and fuels the friction between your character and her opponent(s) and drives the action forward. Quests are based on reward, revenge, escape or a combination of these. Explain why this quest is so important to your character (for example, avenging a loved one, getting a date to the dance, starting over in a new country) as well as (1) what she would be willing to risk or sacrifice to achieve it, and (2) what the cost will be if she is unsuccessful. Examine whether you think her actions are commensurate with the perceived value of the quest.
Pay sharp attention to the subtext of your character's actions and what they really say about him. Provide examples. For instance, a character who volunteers to take care of an elderly relative might seem on the surface to be generous and kind, but he actually has an agenda to put himself in a position of favouritism for the future disbursement of her estate. Another example is a character who won't spend a dime on herself and yet is going into debt buying toys for her cats.
Discuss the character's interactions with others and whether the character treats them as superiors, peers or subordinates. Assess whether these interactions are consistent with or contrary to your expectations of their assigned roles. For example, the expectation might be that a lady's maid would be respectful, quiet and meek in the presence of her employer, and yet the character has been written as someone who is arrogant, loud, and bossy and is able to get away with these behaviours without any reprimand.
Look for the symbolism of objects associated with the character and discuss (1) why these objects are important, and (2) what they say about the owner's personality, memories and vulnerabilities. For example, a woman who always wears a seemingly worthless locket might do so because it's the only item she associates with her mother; to remove it would be to leave the comfort zone of still thinking of herself as a child instead of an adult.
Evaluate the character's actions and reactions in the context of the book's historical or cultural setting. For example, you might explain that a person in the 21st century who doesn't like the way something is being done has more freedom to change the situation than a character of the same age in your book who is living in the 16th century and is a girl.
Describe the conflict's resolution in terms of the character's emotional or spiritual growth. This is called the character arc and refers to the ways in which the individual has evolved during the course of the story. Some characters don't experience an arc at all and are basically the same at the end of a book as they were at the beginning. Others, however, are strengthened, inspired or humbled by the challenges they have faced. A farmer who has always been a pacifist, for example, might be transformed into an activist if horrific events suddenly cause him to question the cost of staying silent.
Compare what you have learnt about the character to your own personality profile in terms of what you admire, what you dislike and whether you would have followed the same course of action. For example, a character who betrays her best friend to get what she wants will have imparted a lesson to you about what's really important in life. Address how the book has validated or changed your opinions.
"The Complete Writer's Guide to Heroes and Heroines," by Tami Cowden, Caro LaFever and Sue Viders, is a great resource for understanding character archetypes and the way they interact with one another in fiction as well as in real life. With the exception of the first step and the last step, the essay content can be constructed in any fashion that's comfortable to you (including the use of subheadings to separate each category of analysis). These principles also apply to the analysis of characters in plays, TV shows and movies.
The purpose of a character analysis essay isn't to rehash the entire plot but to focus on the specific actions, reactions and personality traits of one of the players. Your focus should be more on why certain events transpired as opposed to a lengthy explanation of what the events were.