Characterization in The Outsiders

Instructor: Kimberly Yates

Kimberly has taught college English and has a master's degree in education.

S. E. Hinton wrote 'The Outsiders' when she was 16. It is a story of the struggle between two very different social classes and is loosely based on some of her own experiences. This lesson will look at the way characterization influences the overall story.


Think about your best friend for a minute and think of everything you know about him. How many brothers and sisters he has, where he lives, what his favorite movie is, and what his personality is like. Some of these things you know because your friend told you. Some of these things you know because of how he acts and the things he's done. It's the same in literature. Sometimes we know things about characters because the author tells us. This is called direct characterization. Other times, we figure things out for ourselves based on what a character thinks, says or does. This is indirect characterization. In 'The Outsiders,' S. E. Hinton used both forms of characterization to help us understand the relationships between the characters, the conflict, and the theme.

Plot Summary

'The Outsiders' focuses on the conflict between teenagers in two very different social classes: the poor greasers and the wealthy socs. The story is narrated by Ponyboy Curtis, a young greaser who is smart and sensitive. In spite of this, Ponyboy and his best friend Johnny are involved in the murder of a soc, Bob Sheldon. They flee the city with the help of another greaser, Dally Winston. This starts a violent chain of events that ends with both Johnny and Dally dead. Johnny is killed from injuries he gets rescuing children from a fire and Dally is shot after he forces a confrontation with the police. After losing two of his closest friends, Ponyboy is understandably depressed. He eventually realizes that he needs to tell the story of his friends and what it means to be a greaser. He sits down and begins writing 'The Outsiders.'


In the beginning of the novel, Ponyboy and his oldest brother, Darry, struggle to understand each other. Ponyboy tells us directly that Darry became his guardian when their parents died. He also tells us that Darry is a hard worker and not interested in things like movies or books. He says that Darry is tough and strict and that he rarely smiles. Ponyboy assumes that Darry doesn't really like him. However, Hinton uses indirect characterization to show us that Darry is a caring father figure to Ponyboy. Darry sits at Ponyboy's bedside when he's sick, makes him do his homework and go to school, and he constantly worries about Ponyboy getting into trouble. Ponyboy doesn't realize it at first, but the reader knows these are the actions of a concerned father.

Hinton also uses indirect characterization to show that Darry is a father figure to the whole group of greasers. Darry teaches all the boys how to do gymnastics so they'll be more agile in a fight, and he gives them advice about how to stay out of trouble. He also always leaves the front door of the house unlocked so any of the boys have a place to stay if they need it.


The main conflict in the story is the constant struggle between the socs and the greasers. The greasers are directly characterized as poor and lower class. Ponyboy tells us they have long hair and usually wear leather jackets. He also says that they frequently break the law. On the other side of the conflict are the socs, the rich kids from the West side of town. Ponyboy tells us that they drive fancy cars and have nice clothes. They also have huge beer parties that wreck their houses and attack greasers for fun. These differences are the source of conflict in the novel.


The theme of a story is the main idea or point that that the author is trying to get across. In 'The Outsiders,' the main theme is people are all the same.

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