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Character Essay Writing

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Writing for GCSE English (the examination taken by 16 year olds in their last year in High School in the U.K.) the essay is part and parcel of both classroom work and examination pieces. Part and parcel of most essays are the characters within them.

More often than not an essay will contain characters and setting. It is possible to write an essay without characters but I wonder if one can be written without a setting? The writer has a huge task in making the characters ‘real’ for the reader.

So, how do we go about this? There are at least six pointers for the scholar to ‘teach’ the reader about the characters in their work.

i.                 How they look

ii.               Interests they have

iii.              Personality traits

iv.              What they do and how they do it

v.                Their dialogue

vi.              Other characters dialogue about them


i.                 How They Look

The appearance of a character is probably the first place a student will start. Why? Well, it’s the easiest for them to do so. ‘He was tall and he had red hair and pink trousers’, is the type of description that we expect from younger school children.

Those in English lessons approaching their GCSE English examination would do well to look at and consider the following:

‘She could not help but notice him in his red shirt and seersucker trousers; nor fail to see the high cheek-bones and the arched eyebrows. It was a proud face, the face of  a man used to being looked at and appreciated,. . . ‘

The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency – Alexander McCall Smith


ii.               Interests They Have

Virtually every person has interests and this is something that should make us interested in the character and perhaps even able to identify with him/her. They may be good or bad, interesting or boring but they are part of what make makes a character three dimensional and not merely a two dimensional caricature.

The following makes us want to know more about him:  

‘He also deals in second-hand cars. He will fix them too, given half a chance. At any one time there will be half a dozen wrecks of cars lying around outside the house, because bits of them will come in useful, and, “the engine is perfect, but it needs a new body”.’

My Grandfather – Tracy Starrett


iii.              Personality Traits

Here we come to the real crux of what really makes a person ‘tick’ and takes the reader along on a journey of discovery.

Later in the novel we will discover why this person thinks himself high and mighty but this prepares us.

‘He was like a cock who thought the sun had risen to hear him crow.’

Adam Bede – George Eliot


iv.              What They Do and How They Do It

Often, younger students seem to think that essays need to full of action, with perhaps a few deaths and a pint or two of blood! More often than not, this will put a reader off because this type of story is an incredibly difficult genre to write.

The following small sentence prepares us beautifully for Mr. Elton:

‘With men he can be rational and unaffected, but when he has ladies to please, every feature works.’

Emma –Jane Austen


v.                Their Dialogue

Speech is a marvellous way for the reader to get into the mind of the character. It can also be colloquial or perhaps with a smattering of slang. The spoken English word is beautiful and rich. Students must use it if they can.

The use of dialogue here speaks volumes for Uriah Heep:

‘I am well aware that I am the ‘umblest person going. . . My mother is likewise a very ‘umble person. We live in a numble abode.’

David Copperfield  - Charles Dickens


vi.              Other character’s Dialogue About Them

Sometimes we learn more about a character from what others say about them, than from what the characters themselves say. All we hear could be lies so we have to be wise in the way our sympathies and beliefs are taken.

The following is not from an essay. However, that is irrelevant. The point is, that we often learn more from what someone else says about a person than what the character themselves say; how true the following statement turns out to be:

‘Thou hast it now: King, Cawdor, Glamis, all.

As the weird woman promis’d; and, I fear,

 Thou play’dst most foull for’t.’

Macbeth – William Shakespeare

 To learn how to write characters you must read, read and read some more!

Dean Nixon is a private English tutor in Stoke On Trent, Staffordshire, England. Working with him is

Norma Shaw who offers private Sociology tuition.

Please feel free to be a guest blogger at our Experienced Tutors blog.

(C) 2012 Experienced Tutors

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