When analysing a book and speaking of a character that dies, do you still you present tense as you are still analysing a book? If I were to make up a quick example:

"Despite Anna's death, the plot continues. [...] Riley says Anna wanted to die, but how does he know? Anna (was/is) a beautiful girl with a smile on her face everyday, she never (says/said) anything to him about death but of the wonders of life and nature. Her smile (was/is) Riley's favourite thing about her, yet he now reveals he knew the smile was fake."

It makes sense to use past tense but I have been told over and over to never use past tense when analysing a story. Thoughts?

  • Past tense, it's really simple to figure that out on your own though... Commented Dec 6, 2017 at 18:40

4 Answers 4


Although the past tense makes sense due to your sentence construction, a different construction would allow the present tense, by setting a time frame:

When Riley and Anna meet, Anna is a beautiful girl with a smile on her face every day, her smile is his favourite thing about her.

In their conversations she never says anything to him about death, but of the wonders of life and nature.

After her death, Riley asserts he knew her smile was fake and Anna wanted to die, but does not reveal how he knows this.

(The last example is still a present tense character, talking about his own past).

I think this is the writer's choice; whichever you feel is the most clear and readable. A core directive of writing is to be clear to the reader.


Like you, I would be inclined towards the past tense in those examples. I think I could justify it by saying [possibly a bit pedantically] that the plot continuing, and Riley speaking and reflecting on Anna, are all happening in the present - Riley's words and thoughts are reported speech about the past, but are taking place at the present time.

When looking at earlier chapters where Anna is an active subject and not the object of reflection, I would use the present tense to describe who she is and what she is doing.


You are correct. You should not let a good general rule override common sense and correct writing in a specific case.

The best way to conceptualize it is this. Picture your analysis as traveling through the plot of the story as you analyze it. Anything that is happening in the book at the point of your analysis should be rendered in the present tense. But things that are in the past relative to the moment of your analysis should be rendered in the past tense.

In a way, this is one of the benefits of using the present tense as the main mode of your analysis --it allows you to distinguish between the current moment in your analysis and things that happened in the past of the characters (as relative to that moment).


You use the past tense to report past things and the present tense to report present tense.

Death turns a number of present facts about a person into past facts. "John is Chair of the Board" becomes "John was Chair of the Board," but only because John is no longer Chair of the Board. It same would be true if John had resigned rather than died.

There are some interesting edge cases around this, though. When a person dies, we usually start to describe our relationship to them in the past tense:

John was my Grandfather.

But if we phrase it the other way round, we keep the present:

I am John's grandson. 

In other words, it appears that a person has to be alive to bear a relationship in their own right, but living persons can continue to bear relationships to the dead.

So there are some questions around which attributes the dead can continue to bear. Generally they lose their height and the color of their eyes, but they can retain certain accomplishments.

John had blue eyes.


John is the founder of the Smallville Softball League.


John was the founder of the Smallville Softball League.

seems equally honored in usage.

Still, unless it clearly sounds strange, use past of past things and present for present and continuing things.

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