It is easy to compare two characters—and do a good job of it—if you remember four points:
- The Purposes of Comparison
These four points interrelate, but let's start with the most important: the purposes of comparison.
You can compare any two things—an apple and an aardvark, or a slug and a skyscraper. It's easy to compare things like that: a slug is ___ whereas a skyscraper is ___. You could fill in the blanks without even thinking. And that's the problem: you can do it without thinking. That's why so many papers comparing characters are (say it softly) bad and (even worse) boring. The writers don't know their purpose for comparison in general or for comparing those two characters in particular.
There are three general purposes for comparing any characters:
1) You compare things in order to find meaningful similarities and meaningful differences. The more important these are, the more important—and interesting—the comparison. That's why the whole slug/skyscraper thing falls apart.
2) As a student, you compare literary characters in order to demonstrate your understanding of the work as a whole. If you're writing about Shakespeare's Hamlet and you compare Marcellus and Gertrude, you've pretty much demonstrated you don’t understand the play well, because there's little meaningful connection between the two. On the other hand, if you compare Ophelia and Hamlet, as two adults following their respective fathers' advice to their deaths, you've demonstrated superior comprehension.
3) As a writer, you compare characters to understand the work on a deeper level. (Obviously, purpose 2 and purpose 3 are closely linked.)
And that brings us to why. Why are you comparing these two specific characters? You want to examine the two characters and the work they come from until you can complete the following statements:
"I am comparing these two characters in order to show ____ about the work."
"These characters share the following characteristics: ___."
"These characters differ in the following ways: ____."
"These similarities and differences relate to the essential meaning of the work because ____."
Once you can fill in those blanks, you're ready to go on to what. What aspects of these characters are you comparing? Be specific, and always have reasons for your choices. Approach the decision of what to compare methodically. First, look at all the ways that people can be alike or different (sex, age, motivation, religion, etc.). Second, look at the many ways characters can be alike or different in literary works: how they are represented, number of lines spoken, when they take the stage, if the work is in their point of view, and so on.
Finally, consider how you will compare the characters. Conceptually, you will have addressed a number of the "how" questions by answering what and why, but you will also want to focus your comparison. Are you examining how the characters speak for themselves—or how other characters respond to them? How they see the world—or how the work's conclusion passes judgment on their perspectives? As individuals—or as representatives of their class, race, family, region? Work with those questions until your answers cut to the heart of the work in question.
The final "how" question to answer is how to structure your own essay. Broadly speaking, there are two general ways to compare things. You can write about each character in each paragraph (paragraph 2: A's appearance, B's appearance; paragraph 3: A's motivation, B's motivation), or you can write all about A and then all about B. No matter which structure you choose, always remember why you're comparing these two characters. You must always make a larger argument about the meaning of the similarities and differences, and you must always support those arguments with specific examples from the work.
In other words, if you're writing about Pride and Prejudice, don't write something like, "Darcy is male, and Elizabeth is female." Instead, write something like this: "Despite the fact that Darcy is male and rich and Elizabeth is female and relatively poor, they share the following characteristics: ____." And then finish by supplying striking examples in a way that explains the novel for your readers.
A compare-and-contrast essay might seem like the easiest type of paper to write: just find things that are alike and then find things that are different. Piece of cake, right? There’s a catch, however. It is up to you to argue why those similarities and differences matter; otherwise, you don’t have much of a paper. The following 8 easy steps will guide you through the process of writing an effective compare-and-contrast essay that actually has something valuable to say.
1) So they’re alike and they’re different. So what? A good paper will not simply offer a summary of themes, characters, or plot. Your job is to think about how these comparisons and contrasts create meaningful connections to a larger issue.
2) Create an effective thesis statement. Again, you need to say why the comparison and contrast is worthy of note. Let’s say you want to compare and contrast the heroines of Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. Your thesis might be this: “Although Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre are very different on the outside, their shared internal values connects them in literary history and in the fight for women’s rights.” Now you have a reason for your efforts and a compelling case for your audience’s attention.
3) Select a pattern. There are two ways you can write a compare-and-contrast paper. You can present your arguments in a "tandem" pattern or an "alternating" pattern.
- Tandem. Separate your pros and cons into two camps. For example, if you are comparing Jane Austen’s Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice to the heroine of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, you would list all the ways in which the protagonists are similar and different. A rough list might look something like this:
|Upper class||Dirt poor, orphan|
|Resists marriage||Resists marriage|
|Socially inappropriate||Socially awkward|
|Ends up with her man, |
and all is well
|Ends up with her man,|
but only after trauma
Once you have your list, the body of your paper will address everything you have discovered about one character, then everything about the other character.
- Alternating. If you opt for this choice, you will be juxtaposing Elizabeth and Jane’s pros and cons. Creating the list of likeness and differences will be handy here as well, but in using this method, you will continually address the two characters “back and forth” as you compose the body of your paper. For example, you might say, “Elizabeth is easy on the eyes, a traditional beauty, but Brontë’s Jane is continually described as plain and homely.”
4) How to decide on a pattern. While there is no rule about selecting one method over another, for longer papers (those that exceed five or six pages) you should probably go with the alternating pattern. It is hard for the reader to retain all the pertinent information about each side of your argument in lengthier discussions. For shorter papers, the tandem pattern will probably be the best bet.
5) Support with primary text. Support your analysis by providing primary textual support; in this case, the primary sources are the novels Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. For each point you address, whether in a tandem or an alternating pattern, offer textual evidence for your positions either by directly quoting from the text or by paraphrasing. Be sure to properly cite each quote or paraphrase in whatever format your instructor requests (e.g., MLA, Chicago, etc.).
6) Support with secondary sources, if required. Some instructors may ask that you use sources other than the text itself to support your argument. A secondary source is anyone other than the original author. Use secondary sources to provide additional backing for your thesis, especially in arguing for why the compare-and-contrast approach you have selected is valid.
7) Include your own voice. One of the biggest challenges for a writer is to offer his or her own take on a topic. You may feel that everyone else has already said everything there is to say about your subject. Don’t be discouraged! Your own interpretation is what is most valuable in the end.
8) Review. Revise. Repeat. Compare-and-contrast essays can often become convoluted if a tight check is not kept on your writing. Review your work often to make sure you have not suffered the sins of summarizing plot, soapboxing, or wandering pointlessly in the literary woods. Move or delete text if you have to: don’t keep trying to pound a piece into the puzzle if it clearly doesn’t fit.