Authors often signal that they are writing a character study with a title like The Portrait of a Lady, or by naming a book after its central character. A reader is warned that the story will be as much about what a character thinks and feels as it is about what he does, or what happens to her. In a character study, the exploration of the central character's personality is the most important element of the work.
Techniques to reveal character
A straightforward way to write a character study is to have the character talk about himself. In Catcher in the Rye, for example, the character lies on an analyst's couch and describes his feelings and experiences. Problems arise if the character is intended to lack insight. Also, a character who denigrates himself is unappealing, but one who describes his own virtues is egotistical and off-putting.
Another approach is to have a sympathetic friend reveal someone's character. In the Sherlock Holmes stories, for example, Dr. Watson is free to tell readers what a remarkable man his friend is.
The best way to reveal character might be through reaction. What does someone do when they see a chance to make huge amounts of money or destroy a rival? How does someone act when they are in love, or in danger? Personality is revealed when a character reacts to a crisis.
Of course, character is also revealed when a character thinks no one who matters is watching, as when he talks to a servant or taxi driver, or slinks through the streets at night.
Biography is an important element in most character studies. Character studies often use explicit elements of biography to explain how someone became who he is. F. Scott Fitzgerald uses biography in The Great Gatsby, for example.
Aloofness is explained by a lonely childhood, perhaps. An author might use an abusive childhood to explain rage or criminal behavior. Divorce, automobile accidents and illness are other effective ways to explain character traits.
Recent events can also define a character. Someone can be on the rebound or on the run. Donald Westlake's Parker crime stories defined his main character without delving into his childhood at all. However, the amoral character is completely believable because his reactions are invariably consistent with what the reader knows him to be.
For a character study to be truly successful, the outcome of the novel should make sense in terms of the way the character looks at the world. Cruel characters, like Jack London's Wolf Larsen, should meet a cruel fate. Plucky characters should be rewarded with an at least somewhat happy ending, like the story of David Copperfield does. Heroines who surrender too much to society's dictates are stifled, while heroes who rebel too tirelessly die, however gloriously. Character is destiny, or if it is not, in most novels it appears to be, in order to satisfy the readers' sense of justice.
A character study gives the reader the pleasure of understanding another person. Though identification, a character study may even let a reader be another person. The author shows what her character does and what happens to him or her, and also shows why.