Tools of Characterization
Ponyboy is a keen observer, trying to make sense of the complexities of those around him. At the beginning of the novel, he stops the story and spends several pages giving us brief character sketches on Steve, Two-Bit, Dallas, and Johnny. This is classic direct characterization. He tells us that Steve is "cocky and smart" (1.44). Two-Bit can't stop joking around and goes to school for "kicks" (1.45) rather than to learn. Dallas, he says, is "tougher, colder, meaner" than the rest of them. His portrait of Johnny as a frightened, abused, victimized boy is very powerful.
As we read, we can measure Pony's characterizations against what the characters actually say and do. It's also interesting to read how some of Pony's direct characterizations change as he and the other characters change. For example, at one point he describes Darry as unfeeling and inhuman. Most readers can see that this isn't the case, though we can also see why Pony might characterize Darry as such. By the end of the story, Pony recognizes the discrepancy too and changes his characterization of his brother.
In The Outsiders, characters' names usually match their personalities. Keith is called "Two-Bit" because he's opinionated and very talkative. Pony says, "You couldn't shut up that guy; he always had to get his two bits worth in. Hence his name" (1.45). Cherry's nickname doesn't necessarily speak to her character but instead refers to her red hair. Darry's nicknames, "Muscles" and "Superman," refer to his physical strength. Names are important in The Outsiders, and the characters take their names seriously.
You're probably most interested in are the names Ponyboy and Sodapop. These rather unique birth names give us clues about the boys' characters, but also about their parents' characters. We can infer that they were whimsical, quirky, fun-loving people who weren't afraid to distinguish themselves or their children. They chose names that are well outside of the usual norms for naming in their culture. We don't see anybody else in the story with animal or beverage names! Pony seems both proud and embarrassed by his name. It symbolizes his parents' special way of loving him but also his difference from those around him, even those in his own social group. He likes being different, but he doesn't like people to look at his name in a shallow way. When he tells Cherry his name he braces himself for her reaction. He tells us,
I waited for the "You're kidding!" or "That's your real name?" or one of the other remarks I usually get. Ponyboy's my real name and personally I like it. The redhead just smiled. "That's an original and lovely name." (2.23)
This speaks worlds to us and to Pony about Cherry. She's not like the rest, and she can see beyond convention. She probably likes the unusual but, more importantly, she has a knack for knowing what reaction might make Pony feel most comfortable. True to her role as unifier, Cherry uses Pony's name as a point of connection, while others might use it as point of division.
But, do Pony and Soda's names in and of themselves reflect their characters? We think there's some resemblance. Both "Ponyboy" and "Pony" sound somehow both serious and playful and also point to his youth. And, come to think of it, ponies are young horses, and boys are young men – very fitting. Of course, Pony won't be young forever, but his name will be! Think of Johnny telling Pony to "stay gold" (as discussed in Johnny's "Character Analysis"). In his deathbed letter, he explains that by telling him to "stay gold" he means, "stay young" or "stay innocent." So Pony's name seems even more fitting.
Soda pop, as we all know, is a sweet, carbonated beverage that comes in many flavors. Well, most of ladies in Sodapop's town would agree about the sweet part, and he's definitely sweet to his brothers. He's also bubbly and super-energetic and, especially when we look beneath the happy surface, he has many flavors and layers. Like his drinkable counterpart, Soda gives those around him a lift whenever he's near them.
The Outsiders is very focused on actions, and Pony uses people's actions to judge their characters. Many of the actions he presents are very dramatic, and while they are clues to the characters, they might ask more questions than they end up answering.
For example, Bob beats people with his fists, and he keeps his rings on while he's doing so. This tells us that he's a sadistic bully. More complicated is Johnny's killing of Bob. If Johnny had lived, the taking of another life would always impact his character and it would sure shape him – what shape that would be we can't know. Some people will think that there's no excuse for murder and that Johnny should have found another way. Others would say it was in self-defense, or in defense of Ponyboy, and that it makes him a hero.
On the less ambiguous side, we have Pony and Johnny diving headfirst into a burning church and saving a bunch of little kids. This clearly shows us that they're good in a crisis and that they're willing to risk their lives to help others without really even thinking about it. That Johnny is both a taker and a giver of life, in a sense, considerably complicates his character.