Tools of Characterization
Joe Christmas probably has the strangest name in the novel, what with his initials leading many scholars to associate him with Jesus Christ. It's kind of hard not to – his parental origins are mysterious, he gets lynched (a kind of crucifixion?) at 33, and he appeared at the orphanage on Christmas day. But Christmas's name is also important because it's not his birth name – so he experiences a lack of origins and personal identity even at the level of what people call him.
Miss Burden also has a significant name. Miss Burden seems to be haunted by the history of her ancestors and, like Reverend Hightower, unable to escape her past to the point where it becomes a burden that leaves her unable to move on, both physically (she lives in the same house her entire life) and mentally (she's pre-occupied with memories of her family).
Finally, Lena Grove's last name conjures up images of fertility and life – pretty appropriate for the pregnant girl in the novel, wouldn't you say?
Speech and Dialogue
There is one particularly infamous word in a book about race relations in the South that reveals incredibly important things about characters. Any guesses? You bet – it's the N-word. We can learn a lot in the novel about characters through whether or not they use this infamous word. Miss Burden, the black rights activist, for example, consistently uses the term "Negro," and she even says it several times when having sex with Joe Christmas, almost as if it turns her on (this weirds him out, and rightly so). Sometimes this distinction between who says the N-word and who doesn't is made achingly clear, as when Bunch refers to Christmas as being "part nigger" and Hightower immediately says, "Part negro," as if to correct him for being politically incorrect (4.24). In this moment, the language of racial identification exposes that Hightower is a learned, progressive thinker, aware of the implications of racist language. Byron Bunch, however, appears to be more simple-minded and not as politically advanced or educated as Hightower in this scene.
The characters reveal distinct aspects of their personalities through their actions. Lena Grove reveals her loyalty and naiveté as she walks all the way from Alabama to Mississippi (and she didn't start right at the border, folks). Joe Christmas repeatedly proves his disgust and hatred of women in his violent acts toward them – when, for example, he beats the black woman in the barn and murders Miss Burden. Yikes. We can also see aspects of loneliness and alienation in all of the scenes of him walking alone, passing people by. Byron Bunch reveals his love of Lena Grove by riding out to find a doctor for her in the middle of the night and picking a fight with Joe Brown even though he knows he's going to lose.