How to Write a College Character Analysis Essay: Tips for Students

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In college literature classes, students are required to write numerous essays because instructors expect their students to demonstrate not only an understanding of the core concepts being taught but also of the assigned readings. One type of essay that you will be required to write is a character analysis, which is an essay that examines one or more major or minor characters in a story or play, and although many students might experience at least some degree of difficulty when it comes to knowing how to write a college character analysis essay, it really isn’t that difficult - as long as you keep certain information in mind.

Why Writers Use Characterization in Literature

Characters are the imaginary people writers create, and writers achieve characterization (character development) through their use of dialog, description, and action. Just think about it for a moment. Can’t you tell a lot about people not only by what they say but also how they say it? Don’t you intuit things based upon a person’s actions and even how he or she looks? Writers know this, which is why they use this technique to transform into flesh-and-blood human beings what would otherwise be no more than lifeless cardboard cutouts.

The Different Types of Literary Characters

According to John E. Schwiebert, author of Reading and Writing from Literature (1997), most stories contain both “flat” and “round” characters. Shcwiebert says, “A flat character is one who remains essentially unchanged throughout the story and tends to be less an individual than a type” (p. 136). On the other hand, a round character undergoes change during the course of a story, mainly because he or she is much more complex than a flat character and, therefore, possesses the ability to evolve.

The main character is the “protagonist” (hero or heroine), and the protagonist’s opponent is the “antagonist.” Then again, in some stories there is no obvious protagonist or antagonist since the line is blurred between good and evil. In such stories, the main character is often an “anti-hero,” meaning someone who possesses at least some redeeming qualities but is yet inherently flawed. For example, if you’ve seen Clint Eastwood’s movie portrayals of Dirty Harry, you are quite familiar with the conflicting nature of an anti-hero. He or she is neither all good nor all bad, but possesses both good and bad traits in their character analysis, although the good usually outweighs the bad.

Analyzing a Literary Character for a College Essay

When it comes to knowing just how to write a college character analysis essay, you cannot go wrong by using this tried and true structure:

  1. Write the introductory paragraph: In this paragraph, present your thesis, which is the main point you intend to make in the essay. In this instance, that main point is the conclusion you’ve reached about a particular character. For example, had you read “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” by Count Leo Tolstoy, you might have concluded that Ivan Ilyich is symbolic of the totality of humankind, because he cannot accept his own impending demise, but then he gradually realizes that death is inescapable, and since it is, he must come to terms with what his life has represented.
  2. Write the supporting paragraphs: Here is where you analyze the character by presenting your conclusions and supporting those conclusions with examples from the story. In other words, tell the reader what you deduced about the character based upon the evidence you are presenting and explain exactly why you made these deductions.
  3. Write the conclusion. The conclusion shouldn’t be overly long, but neither should it be overly short. So, first, restate your thesis, albeit using different words than you used in the introduction; then briefly summarize your thoughts on the character and provide closure to the essay, perhaps by making one last interesting comment about the character that will not only tie everything together but also leave the reader with some food-for-thought.


Schwiebert, J. E. (1997) Reading and Writing from Literature. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company