Needful Things – Skills and Literature

This is a “how to” page, with some helpful suggestions on writing characterizations, interpreting poetry etc.


Let’s start with …

How to write a characterisation

1. Before you start writing…

Always read the text at hand carefully. Of course it is important that you understand what you are reading. While you read your text, pay close attention to the character(s) and what traits they possess throughout the text. When doing this, try to get a feeling  for what types of characters you are reading about. In especially try to visualize what actions the main characters are doing (all the more important if your text is part of a drama or screen play, originally not intended for reading but for being performed on a stage or screen) so that you can get more of a sense of what is actually happening and why they act the way they do.

Remember: “Action is character.” (Origin of this quote is not as often thought the film industry – although this would make sense! Origin is the American author  F. Scott Fitzgerald.) But “action” is of course a lot more than fighting and shooting, it’s what people do in a given situation, how they react to problems or certain people, how they treat people etc.


Mark the words or sentences or write down the lines that give you information about the character(s).

Here obviously the question is what to mark, or what to look out for. The answer is, characterisation in literature and in real life are not so different from each other. Think about how you come to conclusions about a real life person. You judge by the outer appearance (body, clothes etc.), by their body language, by the behaviour of the person towards other people, by their reactions in certain situations, by what they say about themselves or other people and so on.

Your judgment is also influenced by what other people say about this one person. Of course not all of these means of characterisation are reliable.

Everything mentioned here (outer appearance, body language etc.) can be used as a category which will help you to organise your analysis.

Some means of characterisation would be pure prejudice in real life, for example judging a person by their clothes or based on the colour of their hair or even a handicap. But in literature and in drama and film this is quite common and often simply a stereotype. Think of the devil in a fairy tale depicted with a clubfoot, and isn’t the girl with the black hair usually the evil one in the movie? So real life and characterisation in the arts are not so different in the end, just don’t forget that an author has a choice and probably does his characterisation on purpose. Note also that some aspects of characterisation are direct or explicit (e.g. in a stage direction) others are indirect or implicit. In the latter case you have to think about what you read or observe and you have to come to your own conclusions.

It is probably self evident that in order to do a good characterisation (in real life as in the class room) you need a bit of knowledge about the world and especially people.


2. While writing ….

Write a short introduction in which you present the character(s) and his or her (their) situation. Often this is already done in your first assignment in a standard German “Klausur”.

Start your analysis of a characterisation by a statement thesis in which you sum up your main impression of the character you have to analyse. It is also possible to write a conclusion at the end of your text, but usually it will be easier for you to start with a good idea about your character and to explain this idea in the following text.

Organise your notes into paragraphs. If you have to analyse how the characterisation is done, each paragraph should concentrate on one of the categories from part 1 of this text. Do not only write about what you find but give your interpretation, your conclusions, too.

If possible, support what you write with evidence (words or sentences taken from the text that show that your interpretation is right) taken from the text and comment on it. Don’t forget to refer or quote the text. If the passage you want to use is too long, you should better summon up what you want to point out and again comment on it.

End your analysis with a concluding sentence that makes your whole text round.


3. After writing …

Check   – if your introduction (thesis statement) really leads to a detailed analysis of one or more characters.

– if your text includes everything you found, all the notes you made before writing.

– if you linked all the different aspects of your text in a logical way.

– if you you have quoted or referred to the text you had to analyse.

Of course you should also keep these points in mind while you are writing …