Characters and contrasts

It’s important to think about how characters’ change and interact with each other, as this could suggest some important themes or ideas in the text. The writer may use language to encourage the reader to respond to a character in a certain way.

Look for contrasts or contradictions - not just between characters, but within each character. In real life, no one is simply good or bad. All effective characters have more than one side.

Typical contrasts between characters

  • Characters who think versus characters who feel.
  • Characters who talk versus characters who act.
  • Sociable characters versus solitary characters.
  • Predators who take advantage of people versus characters who are victims.
  • Characters who want one thing versus those who want another.

Typical contrasts within a character

  • A person who says one thing, and does another.
  • A character who sacrifices something important to pursue a goal of their own.
  • A character who wants two opposing things.


This extract is a description of a character from Hilary Mantel’s historical novel Bring Up the Bodies. Thomas Cromwell is the King’s Secretary – an important role. What do we learn about Thomas Cromwell from this extract?

Thomas Cromwell is now about fifty years old. He has a labourer's body, stocky, useful, running to fat. He has black hair, greying now, and because of his pale impermeable skin, which seems designed to resist rain as well as sun, people sneer that his father was an Irishman, though really he was a brewer and a blacksmith at Putney, a shearsman too, a man with a finger in every pie, a scrapper and brawler, a drunk and a bully, a man often hauled before the justices for punching someone, for cheating someone. How the son of such a man has achieved his present eminence is a question all Europe asks. Some say he came up with the Boleyns, the queen's family. Some say it was wholly through the late Cardinal Wolsey, his patron; Cromwell was in his confidence and made money for him and knew his secrets. Others say he haunts the company of sorcerers. He was out of the realm from boyhood, a hired soldier, a wool trader, a banker. No one knows where he has been and who he has met, and he is in no hurry to tell them.

Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel


  • There’s a contrast between Cromwell’s background, as the son of a blacksmith, and his current job and position.
  • The use of different tenses stresses this, by placing the word "now" in the middle of the first sentence, then the rest of the extract focuses mainly on his past.
  • The writer focuses on Cromwell’s varied background, by listing his various professions or occupations.
  • First his father’s various trades are listed - “a brewer and a blacksmith…a shearsman too…” Later in the extract Cromwell’s occupations are listed - “…a hired soldier, a wool trader, a banker.”
  • The effect of this listing, seems to be to link the two men, one who was "a brawler, a drunk and a bully…” and one who is surrounded by mystery.
  • The opening phrases from some of the sentences are repeated - “Some say...Some say…Others say…” The effect of this repetition is to suggest there’s a mystery about how Cromwell got to where he is – that people gossip about him.
  • People don’t seem to like him - either he "came up" with the family of the queen, or maybe he owes his rise to "sorcerers."
  • “…made money for him and knew his secrets.” The choice of language here implies that the character may owe his success to dishonest dealings.
  • The reader could feel sympathy for Cromwell. He’s a self-made man, who is sometimes looked down on by those around him.
  • There is also a suggestion that this character doesn’t need the reader’s sympathy.
  • His physical appearance also suggests a certain toughness, he is "stocky" and his skin is described as "impermeable." The use of this last adjective could also represent his character: he is closed and gives nothing away.
When you are writing about characterisation, don't just describe what characters are like. Examine the language techniques used by the writer to create the character.