All characters are part of a group of some kind. Their relationship with that group and the people within the group is often a promising topic of analysis. In this guide, we’ll be discussing characters and the groups they inhabit by first discussing the types of groups, then what you should be looking for to help analyze the character’s relationship with those groups. We’ll also be talking about some of the forces that act on a character, and how characters interact with those.
Characters can be part of many different groups, and their relationship with one group can greatly affect their relationship with another one. Here are some examples of groups that characters can be in:
Family: A character’s family is often the closest group they have, and the author will often explain their relationship with their family in some way. Are they close to their parents? Do they have a rivalry with their older brother or little sister? Even characters without a family in the traditional sense, such as orphans, will have relationships with the people they’re raised with. Characters can also have a relationship with the idea of a family — an orphan character might be motivated by a desire to learn about their parents, for example.
A character’s friend-group is also rich with interesting complexities to explore. Characters often only have one or two close friends — Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice
has primarily Charlotte Lucas as her friend, for instance, just as Nick Carroway has mainly Gatsby. Friends can act as sidekicks, foils
Society: The social group a character is in will have a big impact on their experiences. Does the character live in a city? The countryside? A small city? Do they live in the present day? What class are they in — are they a noble? A peasant? In different social groups, different practices are considered acceptable, and different norms are enforced on the people inside.
Identity Groups: This one’s a little more abstract, but characters can be considered to be part of a group because of some feature of their identity, such as their race, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc. Characters will often have relationships with their role as part of these groups — for example, a female character might rebel against society’s expectation for her because of her gender.
In some books, a group can function as a character in the sense that a collective group can go through the same development, have the same sort of complexity, and make the same sort of choices, as a single character can.
For example, polite Russian society — a group — in Anna Karenina chooses to make Anna an outcast.
The group of animals in Animal Farm goes through a change as they go from the beginning of the book to the end.
Characters can also be impacted by external and internal forces. Often times, a character’s society or someone they have a relationship with are the ones applying these forces to a character, but characters also apply forces to themselves. When we talk about force here, we’re not talking about forces in the AP Physics sense, but rather the pressures on a character than can cause them to make certain choices or think certain things. Here are a few examples:
The desires of others
The character’s hopes/dreams
The character’s fears
The desires of the society that the character lives in
Environmental factors, both physical (weather, climate, etc) and otherwise (ex: poverty)
Like a group, a force can also function as a character in a story. This generally occurs only when the force on the character is a major part of their journey. The forces acting on characters can also be personified (given human form). For example, in Wuthering Heights, one could make the argument that Edgar Linton, one of the main character’s love interests, is a personification of the force of respectable society on the main character.
When readers are looking at a character, they should look at the character’s relationship with groups important to them. These will generally be the groups that the novel discusses or has the character interact with the most. The one exception is the societal group, which is generally in the background.
Study Tip: Try to only look at one group at a time, so you aren’t dealing with too much at once.
Here are some analysis questions to get yourself started:
What does this character think about the group in question? How do they feel about their family, their friends, their social group?
What does the group think about the character? How do their friends feel about them?
What forces influence the characters most?
In the next guide, we’ll be talking about how characters interact with their settings.