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Lesson II: Character, Mood, and Tone


Character is something that is often inferred from words or actions, and not by direct description. If you read an excerpt from a play, for example, it is unlikely that you will be given a direct description of the characters. You will, however, need to pay close attention to the things that they say, as well as how they say it. Also, you will need to look out for any side notes that appear in italics or brackets, as they can give important information pertaining to the set up of the scene or the actions of the characters. Therefore, the reader must rely on the hints offered by the playwright or novelist to interpret the character or personality of the characters.


We were brought up together; there was not quite a year difference in our ages. I need not say that we were strangers to any species of disunion or dispute. Harmony was the soul of our companionship, and the diversity and contrast that subsisted in our characters drew us nearer together. Elizabeth was of a calmer and more concentrated disposition; but, with all my ardor, I was capable of a more intense application and was more deeply smitten with the thirst for knowledge. She busied herself with following the aerial creations of the poets; and in the majestic and wondrous scenes which surrounded our Swiss home—the sublime shapes of the mountains, the changes of the seasons, tempest and calm, the silence of winter, and the life and turbulence of our Alpine summers—she found ample scope for admiration and delight. While my companion contemplated with a serious and satisfied spirit the magnificent appearances of things, I delighted in investigating their causes. The world was to me a secret which I desired to divine. Curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they were unfolded to me, are among the earliest sensations I can remember.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

In the passage quoted above, the character of Elizabeth and her unnamed companion are given a succinct, clear description. Here, the author directly explains the character of the protagonists. It is not necessary to infer it from their words and actions. Sometimes you will be given a brief character description in prose, like the above example, followed with dialogue or actions that either compound or contradict what was described beforehand. If a character is described as being generous and understanding, but is then shown to be stingy and cruel in their actions, we can infer that the author of the passage is being sarcastic in their description of the protagonist’s character.

Pay attention to hypocrisy or seeming contradictions between what the narrator is saying about a character and the way the character behaves. This can clue you in to the nature of the character that the author is trying to portray.

Skill Exercise: Determining Character in a Play

Reading drama, or plays, is very different than reading text in prose form (like novels or short stories) or even poetry. Plays are meant to be performed! In spite of this, the play can still stand alone as a literary text. It is necessary to note, however, that the author's voice is further from the scene, as dialogue dominates the play form. Plays are closer to poetry in that they are condensed, highly meaningful compositions, and some plays are poetry, like William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Read the following excerpt from Romeo and Juliet, paying close attention to what the two characters say, as well as how they say them. Notice that there are numbers to the right of the text. These are called “line numbers” and are there to provide easy reference back to the text. On the GED® test, a question might say “On line 5, what does the word ‘reckoning’ mean?”

This is a particularly difficult passage, as it is a tragic play written in an older form of English that can be difficult to understand. Try reading the following passage in your head and then again aloud to hear the likely inflection in the voices of the two characters.


A street.


Enter CAPULET, PARIS, and Servant



But Montague is bound as well as I,


In penalty alike; and 'tis not hard, I think,


For men so old as we to keep the peace.



Of honourable reckoning are you both;



And pity 'tis you lived at odds so long.


But now, my lord, what say you to my suit?



But saying o'er what I have said before:


My child is yet a stranger in the world;


She hath not seen the change of fourteen years,



Let two more summers wither in their pride,


Ere we may think her ripe to be a bride.



Younger than she are happy mothers made.



And too soon marr'd are those so early made.


The earth hath swallow'd all my hopes but she,



She is the hopeful lady of my earth:


But woo her, gentle Paris, get her heart,


My will to her consent is but a part;


An she agree, within her scope of choice


Lies my consent and fair according voice.



This night I hold an old accustom'd feast,


Whereto I have invited many a guest,


Such as I love; and you, among the store,


One more, most welcome, makes my number more.


At my poor house look to behold this night



Earth-treading stars that make dark heaven light:


Such comfort as do lusty young men feel


When well-apparell'd April on the heel


Of limping winter treads, even such delight


Among fresh female buds shall you this night



Inherit at my house; hear all, all see,


And like her most whose merit most shall be:


Which on more view, of many mine being one


May stand in number, though in reckoning none,


Come, go with me.



To Servant, giving a paper


Go, sirrah, trudge about


Through fair Verona; find those persons out


Whose names are written there, and to them say,


My house and welcome on their pleasure stay.




Question 1

  1. What is Capulet’s biggest concern?
    1. His own happiness
    2. The happiness of Paris
    3. The happiness of Montague
    4. The happiness of his daughter
    5. The reputation of his household

Answer: D. In this excerpt, Capulet is clearly most concerned with the happiness and well-being of his daughter.

Question 2

  1. What is Paris’ biggest concern?
    1. His own happiness
    2. The happiness of Capulet
    3. The happiness of Montague
    4. The happiness of Capulet’s daughter
    5. His own reputation

Answer: A. Paris shows that his one preoccupation is with his desire to quickly marry Capulet’s daughter, regardless as to whether or not she is ready for marriage.


The scene begins with what seems to be the end of another conversation. Capulet is expressing a sort of empathy with Montague, indicating that they have a similar struggle and should be mature enough to be civil. Paris concurs, compliments them both, and quickly switches topics to a demand that he has already made to Capulet. It is clear that his demand is for the hand of Capulet’s young daughter in marriage. Capulet indicates that he stands firmly behind his decision to let his daughter have a childhood for two more years, and asks Paris to wait until then to marry her. Paris interjects by saying that she is not too young to be happily married. Capulet responds by saying that the risks involved in marrying her off too quickly are not worth the possible benefits to him, as she is still young and happy and he wants her to stay that way. He does, however, indicate that Paris is free to court her and if she wishes to marry him, Capulet will consent happily.

Character Analysis:

Here, Capulet is presented as a concerned father, looking out for his daughter’s happiness above all else. He appears sage, remarking that he and his rival Montague should be able to put their differences aside and be civil adults. This does, however, indicate that they have not been able to do this, showing a discrepancy between how Capulet presents himself and how he actually is. He is accommodating and kind to Paris, clearly showing that he wants him to marry his daughter, but that he does not want to force her into an early marriage. Capulet’s character appears kind and benevolent, while possibly faulted, as indicated by his revelation that he has been at odds with Montague for many years.

Paris says significantly less in this passage, so it would appear that analyzing his character would be more difficult, but in reality, the few lines he utters give us plenty of insight into his personality. From the first thing he says, we can assume that he knows which side his bread is buttered on, if you’ll excuse the idiom. He begins by complimenting Capulet, the father of the girl he wants to marry, but his compliment cuts off the conversation that he was having with Capulet, and segues into his own concern. This shows Paris to be self-centered. This is compounded by his single line that follows Capulet’s expression of worry for the young age of his daughter: “Younger than she are happy mothers made.” This emphasizes his desire for the young girl and his seeming unconcern with her happiness, showing his self-involvement.



Tone is the aspect of the author’s style that reveals his or her attitude toward the subject at hand. It is the emotional atmosphere given to a work by authorial attitude, the field of feeling projected by devices of the poetic voice.

Mood is the atmosphere, or emotional effect, created by the way in which the author presents the material.

Skill Exercise: Determining Tone and Mood in a Passage

Compare the two similar passages below to determine their differences in tone and mood. Consider the feelings or attitudes that are expressed:

Passage 1:

Jessica walked slowly through the hallway. “Come out, come out, wherever you are!” she yelled. Since the room was dark, she had to feel around for the doorknob to the dining room. As her hand closed around the cool brass knob, she gave it a firm twist to the right, opening the door to the dining hall with a satisfying bang. The long table was illuminated by a stream of moonlight from a large bay window to her right, allowing her to see enough to enter the room. She giggled with nervousness as she took a few steps forward, stopping short at the sight of something shadowy moving in the corner.

Passage 2:

       Jessica crept along the darkened hallway. She was conscious of a faint whistling noise as she groped the wall in front of her for the doorknob that she knew was there, but couldn’t seem to find in her fear. Finally, her hand closed around the brass knob. She attempted to twist the knob open, but the thin layer of sweat on her palm prevented her from getting the solid grip she needed. Finally, the decrepit wooden door swung inward with a groan, unveiling the dim glow of a single moonlit window on the dining room table. Jessica tentatively moved into the room, but suddenly she saw a human-sized shadow move in the corner of the room - she gasped and cried out, “Who’s there!?”    


As you noticed (hopefully), the second passage imparts a significantly creepier and more frightened mood for the reader. Because of this, we can also say that the tone or emotional atmosphere of the second passage is gloomier and more fearful. Let’s get into the specifics.

In Passage 1, most of the sentences are longer, using coordinating conjunctions and smooth transitions. This makes the passage flow and gives it a feeling of regularity. Also, there are fewer adjectives used, so you are left with less of a feeling or picture of what is happening in the scene. In Passage 2, the descriptors are much more intense, painting a picture of darkness, gloom and fear. Some mood-indicator words are: crept, groped, fear, clammy, sweat, decrepit, groan, dim, and gasped. These words indicate searching, consciousness of the physical body in fear, and the haunted-house like nature of the setting. Also, the sentences are shorter, which makes the reader start and stop with the action. Shorter sentences can lend a sense of uncertainty and suspense to a passage. This can also be done with longer, particularly well-written sentences, but is not the case in the first passage.

In Passage 1, we are given more information as to why Jessica is in the setting that she is. When she yells, “Come out, come out, wherever you are!” a lighthearted feeling is conveyed to the reader, as we identify that line with playing hide and seek. As a result, we realize that Jessica is probably looking for a friend in a darkened house. This is compounded by the nervous giggle that she lets out a few lines later. Thus, when we are introduced to the shadowy figure in the room, instead of being terrified, we, and she, realize that we’ve found her hiding friend. This passage seems tense, if anything, but does not convey a sense of true, total fear.

In Passage 2, this element of familiar playfulness isn’t present. Here it feels as if she is finding her way through a house in order to get out and escape from something. Perhaps she is looking for somebody here as well, but is unsure of what else lies in wait in the dark old rooms of the house. Perhaps she is hiding from a pursuer, hence her slow, quiet, and fearful movements, compounded by her crying out, “Who’s there!?” 

This brings us to the end of Lesson 2: Determining Character, Mood and Tone. Remember, when determining mood, try to find words that create a certain atmosphere or evoke an emotion. Details, adjectives and adverbs all contribute greatly to the sense of mood.

Back: Reading Lesson 1 | Next: Reading Lesson 3

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