Critics and writers use the term "character study" a lot, usually to describe works that are especially 'literary' such as The Remains of the Day. Despite its usage, it appears that no one really has a definition of a "character study", and that no one really has a specific set of properties that sets character studies apart from "non character studies".

Am I mistaken? If so, what exactly makes a character study a character study?

3 Answers 3


I'm not entirely sure myself, but if I were to wager, it is where the primary conflict and arc of a protagonist is not primarily about the physical quest, the action and the plot, but rather their internal change, their character development.

Now, you might think 'oh, but isn't every story that'? No, not really. Something like 'Back to the Future', while an entertaining movie, has largely static protagonists; both Marty and Doc Brown don't have character arcs, and the main story is 'main character is stranded in the past and needs to get out'. The primary conflict is external rather than internal.

Take instead something like (and this is going to be a touch controversial given it's hardly literary or popular) 'the Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya'. The main character, Kyon, winds up in a similar situation: He's whisked away from his weird, supernatural-event-filled world that he knows and gripes about constantly and is instead placed in a completely normal world.

He freaks out and tries to get home, making it seem like the main conflict will be external, but in the end, the means to get home is figured out relatively quickly. The main conflict then becomes... is it right to change the world back to how it was, and does he, the main character, want it?

He thinks about all the times he's hated being ran around and suffered the consequences of big magical happenings he has no control over and seriously debates with himself if, now that he has the means to return to his old life, he really wants it. He's thinking about the character who changed the world for him, a dear friend of his, and whether his relationship with her trumps his relationship with the old world.

Ultimately, he chooses the old world, because he develops as a person and realises that... yeah, for as much as he gripes about the crazy happenings in the old world, he wouldn't replace it for the world. 'Disappearance' is a character study of Kyon and his role as a snarky everyman amidst the chaos.

I hope this helps.


A character study is a character portrayal, it shows the life and concerns of one (or a few) characters, why they do what they do, so you get to know them. They can be entertaining, immersing the reader in their world.

There is no overarching goal for these characters that they strive to achieve; but it is fun to watch them, sympathize with them, rejoice with them, grieve with them. They find lovers, navigate hardships and setbacks, but you don't get the sense that they are aiming to achieve any life goal. Typically they don't have a villain to defeat. You have a "slice of life" novel.

Of course, the character you study does have to be interesting, they can't be leading an entirely boring life, because you need to take us through ups and downs, triumphs and failures, grief and joy, often sexual liasons, affairs, or the loss of virginity. This can mean a headstrong or impulsive character, or a fearless character.

Besides "Remains of the Day", I would say "Little Women" (Louisa May Alcott) is a character study, of four sisters. It is out of copyright, you should be able to get it for free somewhere.


From what I understand in the times I have seen it a character study is when a writer takes a well known character archetype (take many of Shakespeare’s major character and plot archetypes for example) and reuses it in a new and original way that deepens its use, but doesn’t branch too far off of it.

I think it is also usually reserved for literary critique as the intent behind the character is to be a literary ode to the original archetype and a sort of study into the qualities of this type of character, not a rework of a familiar character for ease of writing. e.g. Gandalf may be seen as a character study of Merlin. I couldn’t give you too many examples though as I don’t really read many genre’s that would fit well into the literary field.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.