compare and contrast essay


How to Write a Compare and Contrast Essay

Pages:12 (3706 words)


Topic:Compare And Contrast

Document Type:Writing Guide


We get a lot of questions about writing essays, but one of our most frequent questions is how to write a compare and contrast essay.  This makes senses because most schools really focus on expository writing, without necessarily explaining how to use that style to compare and/or contrast two or more things. In this article, we will go over all of the basics for writing a strong compare and contrast essay, then, using the example we began in our compare and contrast outline tutorial, we will provide you with an example of a basic compare and contrast essay.

What is a Compare and Contrast Essay?

A compare and contrast essay is any essay where you are asked to point out the similarities and the differences between two or more things.  These essays can range in difficulty from basic to very complex, depending on the complexity of the things that are being compared in the essay.   It is very important to make sure you understand that the essay requires highlighting similarities and differences.  While you may be asked to write pure comparison essays or pure contrast essays, a compare and contrast essay that highlights only differences or only similarities is going to be incomplete.  Unless you are asked only to compare or only to contrast topics, you want to make sure and make it clear that there are both similarities and differences in the topics you are discussing.  

How Do You Demonstrate Similarities and Differences? 

In the most basic compare and contrast essay format, which is what we are going to show in our example, you will divide similarities and differences into different paragraphs, focusing on providing support for either a similarity or a difference in each body paragraph.  However, as the complexity grows, you may actually point out an area where something is both similar and different, providing evidence for both within the body of the same paragraph.  

Choosing a Topic

For a compare and contrast essay, it is important to realize that you are actually picking two subjects, because you need to be able to compare and contrast them.  When you are asked to do both, you want to make sure that the things you compare are enough alike that you can detail similarities, but sufficiently different that you can highlight those differences in a meaningful way.  

For example, comparing cats and dogs makes sense because, while they are both companion mammals domesticated by humans and kept as pets, they have substantial differences in behavior appearance, and average size.  Likewise, writing a compare and contrast essay about dogs and wolves or house cats and tigers would also make sense.   However, writing a compare and contrast essay about house cats and wolves or dogs and tigers would come probably be difficult and not make for a very cohesive essay.

Compare and Contrast Essay Topics

Coming up with a topic idea can be the most challenging part of writing a compare and contrast essay.  The biggest piece of advice we can give it to keep your audience in mind when writing a compare and contrast essay.  If you are a high school student, writing a compare and contrast essay about dogs and cats might be fine, but a basic essay like that would not be an okay topic for a veterinary school student.  You want your essay to provide some type of information and insight that goes beyond common knowledge for your reader. You can also choose a topic that is too complex for the reader.  So, think about whether the audience needs any specialized knowledge that you are not going to have the opportunity to supply in your essay, in order to evaluate your points.  If so, then the topic is too complex.   

Some ideas for compare and contrast essays include:

  • Love v. Lust
  • Star Wars v. Star Trek
  • College v. Work
  • Lincoln v. Washington
  • North v. South 
  • Coffee v. Chocolate
  • Odin v. Zeus
  • Anorexia v. Bulimia
  • Harry Potter v. Harry Dresden
  • Batman v. Superman 
  • Captain Marvel v. Wonder Woman
  • Batman v. Joker
  • Living Together v. Getting Married
  • Kennedy v. Obama
  • Obama v. Trump
  • Living in a Dorm v. Living in an Apartment
  • Buying a Car v. Leasing a Car
  • Keto v. Paleo
  • Ancient Greece v. Ancient Rome
  • Sparta v. Athens
  • Christianity v. Judaism
  • Christianity v. Islam
  • Judaism v. Islam
  • Monotheism v. Polytheism

If you are trying to come up with a great compare and contrast essay topic, you can get some ideas by visiting reputable websites. is a great resource.  It is a non-partisan, non-biased website that looks at the pros and cons of controversial issues.  While it focuses on different sides of the same issue, it can be a good starting point for coming up with interesting topics.  Another great resource to check out is The Perspective, which features debates on different topics.  The best thing about the site is that it does not come to a conclusion, but gives you the arguments to support both sides of a debate and lets you draw your own conclusions.


Once you have picked your topic, sit down and brainstorm about similarities and differences.  Sometimes brainstorming feels like an unnecessary step in the writing process.  However, if you take the time to brainstorm when you are writing a compare and contrast essay, then you give yourself plenty of opportunities to make sure that there are actually substantial differences and similarities to support your essay.

Our example essay is going to compare Harry Dresden from Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files series and Harry Potter from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.  There are a bunch of different approaches you can take to brainstorming, but we suggest starting out relatively loose in your approach.  Here is a chart we made for the two characters.  Not all of these items will make it into our essay and our comparing and contrasting is not divided into sections.  However, notice that if we did not have the information to fill in a matching box for the other character, we would know not to include that particular item in a compare and contrast essay.  

Harry Potter

  • Orphan
  • Didn’t know his parents
  • Wizard
  • Pet Owl
  • No children 
  • Enemy is Voldemort 
  • Student
  • Dropped out of school
  • Abused by aunt and uncle who raised him
  • Not romantically interested in female best friend
  • Hasn’t killed with magic
  • Moderately powerful
  • Mistrusted by Ministry of Magic
  • Changing cast of proxies for Voldemort
  • Relies on his friends
  • Must hide magic from Muggles
  • Relies on his friends
  • No known religious affiliation
  • Tempted by power

Harry Dresden

  • Orphan
  • Knew his father
  • Wizard
  • Pet Dog and Cat
  • Has at least one child
  • Enemy is unknown
  • Private Detective
  • Dropped out of School
  • Abused by man who raised him
  • Is romantically interested in female best friend
  • Has killed with magic
  • Extremely powerful
  • Feared by White Council
  • Changing cast of proxies for unknown enemy
  • Relies on his friends
  • Openly advertises as a sorcerer
  • Relies on his friends
  • Believes in God, but not a worshipper
  • Tempted by power 

Narrow Down Your Topic

Depending on what you are comparing and contrasting, you may come up with dozens of similarities and differences.  Obviously, you do not want to include all of them in your essay.  That is why you want to look at your topic and really decide how you want to focus your essay.  Because you are focusing on writing an essay and you are going to want some supporting sentences for your main thoughts, you want to pick some of the broader similarities and differences, rather than focusing on the details.  The details are what you will use to support those larger concepts, once you start to write your essay.  

For our compare and contrast essay, we chose to focus on these two similarities: 

  • Both Harrys are orphans
  • Both Harrys rely on close friendships.

We chose to highlight these two differences:

  • Potter’s enemy is known to him, but Dresden’s is unknown.
  • Dresden engages in morally ambiguous behavior, while Potter remains a pure hero.

Develop a Thesis

Once you have selected the similarities and differences that you want to highlight, think about the conclusions that you can draw from those similarities and differences.  You are going to use those conclusions to help you come up with your thesis statement.  

Generally speaking, a thesis statement should address the topics you discuss in the paper.  In a compare and contrast paper, your thesis needs to give the reader some idea of what you have concluded after comparing and contrasting the items discussed in the paper.  Keep in mind that as you write your paper and flesh out your supporting evidence, you may actually come to a different conclusion.  That is why you should always revisit your thesis after you finish writing your paper, to ensure that it is still applicable.  

The working thesis sentence we came up with for our Harry Potter/ Harry Dresden essay is: While both the Harry Potter series and the Dresden Files are likely to appeal to similar audiences because of similarities beyond their use of magic and strong sympathetic lead characters who both happen to be named Harry, there are some differences in the two Harrys that lead to very different reader experiences.  This thesis sentence covers the basics for a compare and contrast essay, but is a little wishy-washy.  That is okay for a starting thesis statement, because we can always go back and revise after we have finished writing the essay. 

If you need more help determining what your thesis statement should be or how to write a thesis statement, you can turn to the writing lab at your university for help or head over to Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab, which is a great resource for any writer.  

Determine Your Structure

We take a basic five-paragraph approach in most of our example outlines and essays, and if you check out our example outline for compare and contrast essays, you will see that we suggest handling the comparisons and then the contrasts, with a body paragraph devoted to each main point.  However, that is not the only way to structure a compare and contrast essay.  You can alternate comparison and contrast points.  You can actually highlight areas where they seem the same but then show how they are different in the same area. You can highlight areas where they seem to be different, but are actually the same.  You want to decide what approach you are going to take, because that will determine the structure of your paper.  If you are new to writing compare and contrast essays, we suggest you start out by choosing to focus on similarities and then differences or differences and then similarities, depending on which organizational structure better supports your thesis.  

Compare and Contrast Essay Outline

Some people dread writing outlines, but they are a great way to make sure that you include all of the information that your reader needs.  Visit our Compare and Contrast Essay Outline tutorial to see how to complete an outline.  We are not going to take you step-by-step through the outline process in this tutorial, but we are going to include parts of our outline to show you how to flesh it out in the writing process.  

Once you have completed your outline, the only thing you have left to do is complete your essay.  Remember, you will be comparing and contrasting things throughout your essay.  Here are some great words and phrases to keep in mind for the comparison portion of your essay: 

  • Same
  • Like
  • As 
  • Both
  • In common
  • Similar
  • Share

Here are some words to keep in mind when you are contrasting things: 

  • Difference
  • Diverge
  • Oppose
  • Diverse
  • Distinct

If you have completed a strong outline, then you can use that outline to provide structure and remind you of the main points of your essay.  We are going to show you the outline for each paragraph of the essay, followed by an example of how that paragraph could be fleshed out for an actual essay.  

I. Although Harry Potter and Harry Dresden are both wizards named Harry, they are not identical characters.

A. Both Harrys are orphans.

B. Both Harrys rely on close friendships.

C. Potter’s enemy is known to him; Dresden’s is secretive.

D. Dresden engages in morally ambiguous behavior, while Potter remains a pure hero.

E. While both the Harry Potter series and the Dresden Files are likely to appeal to similar audiences because of similarities beyond their use of magic and strong sympathetic lead characters who both happen to be named Harry, there are some differences in the two Harrys that lead to very different reader experiences. 

Within three years of each other, two authors released books about wizards named Harry.  J.K. Rowling released Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in 1997, and Jim Butcher released Storm Front in 2000. Both books were the first books in urban fantasy series that went on to become wildly popular and develop dedicated fan bases.  While there is a significant overlap in those fan bases and many similarities beyond their first names, Harry Potter and Harry Dresden are not the same character.  Both Harrys are orphans, but the circumstances that led to them being orphaned differ.  Both Harrys rely on close friendships for both a sense of family and for assistance defeating their foes.  However, while Potter knows that Voldemort is his ultimate enemy, Dresden’s main foe remains a secret through most of the series.  In addition, while Dresden engages in morally ambiguous behavior, Potter gets to remain a hero throughout his series.  As a result, while both the Harry Potter series and the Dresden Files are likely to appeal to similar audiences, there are enough differences in the two Harrys to lead to very different reader experiences, making both series worthwhile reads for any fan of urban fantasy.  

II. Both Harrys are orphans.

A. Potter’s parents died protecting him from Voldemort.

B. Dresden’s parents are dead, but the causes are unknown.

C. Both were raised by abusive foster parents.

One of the most obvious similarities between the two Harrys is that both of them are orphans.  Potter’s parents died protecting him from Voldemort when he was an infant, though his aunt and uncle led him to believe that they died in a car accident.  Dresden’s parents are dead, presumably of natural causes, but the actual causes of their deaths are left ambiguous throughout much of the series.  In addition, while it is true that as the series progresses Dresden discovers that he has living relatives and develops relationships with them, this does not occur until well into his adulthood and does not alter the fact that he was raised as an orphan.  Furthermore, while neither Harry got to know their mother, Dresden actually spent his early childhood years with his father.  However, a defining characteristic for both Harrys is that they were raised by abusive foster parents after they were orphaned.  Potter went to live with an aunt and uncle who hated him and forced him to live in a cupboard under the stairs.  Dresden was taken in by a wizard who wanted to use him as a weapon, used physical abuse to train him, and then tried to kill him after Harry resisted his efforts to turn him into a magical thrall.  The fact that both Harrys were orphans raised by abusive foster parents may be their most important similarity, because it helps explain both their desire to be good guys and their temptation to be bad guys.

III. Both Harrys rely on close friendships.

A. Potter’s friendships with Hermione and Ron are critical to him.

B. Dresden’s friendships with Murphy and Michael help define him.

C. Both characters have a group of “secondary” friends that provide help and support, as well.

Because they were both orphaned, the Harrys have had to build their own family units out of their friends.  They both do this by creating networks of very close friends and secondary friends that they rely upon when they are facing trouble.  Potter is as defined by his friendships with Hermione and Ron as he is by any of his magical powers.  When he temporarily loses those friendships at various points in the series, he is prone to making mistakes and engaging in rash behaviors.  Dresden’s friendships, especially with Murphy and Michael, define him throughout the series.  He repeatedly puts himself in danger to save both of them, and, when he feels lost, he turns to Michael to be reminded of his humanity.  In addition, they both form supportive networks with a cast of characters that expands beyond their close friend circle.  Harry depends on Ron’s whole family, many of his teachers, and a number of students at Hogwarts to help him defeat Voldemort.  Dresden seems to encounter a new friend in each of the books in the early series, progressing from a man who seems to be a loner in the first book to a man with a tight knit circle of friends who are willing to die to protect his child by the mid-series book Changes. 

IV. Their enemies are different. 

A. Once he gets to Hogwarts, Potter knows that Voldemort and his followers are enemies.

B. Although he encounters foes as a private detective, Dresden is unaware that he has any living enemies when the series begins.

C. Both enemies have secret allies that the Harrys confront throughout their series.

While there are a number of similarities between the two Harrys, there are also some important differences.  One of those differences may be the foes that they face.  In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the reader is introduced to the idea that Potter is facing this fearsome foe, Voldemort, who is so powerful that he frightens most of the wizarding world.  While Potter faces and must defeat at least one of Voldemort’s proxies in most of the books in the series, he is always aware of the ultimate enemy.  In contrast, when his series begins, Dresden seems unaware that he has a serious enemy.  In fact, throughout the first several books in the series, while Dresden encounters a number of foes, they seem to be unrelated and he simply appears to be a man in a dangerous profession who is collecting enemies.  It is not until much later in the series that the reader becomes aware that these enemies are somehow related, though the person behind them has not yet been revealed.  

V. Dresden’s behavior is morally ambiguous, but Potter gets to act heroic.

A. Both characters have to keep some of their behaviors hidden and mislead people.

B. Potter’s overt behaviors never have intended negative consequences for other good characters.

C. Dresden’s overt behaviors often have intended negative consequences for other good characters.

D. Dresden wreaks havoc on bystanders.

Another interesting difference in the two Harrys is their morality.  Dresden thinks of himself as one of the good guys, but often acts in morally ambiguous ways.  Potter begins the series thinking of himself in fairly neutral terms, but pressured by the wizarding community into being a hero.  While both characters are required to keep some of their behaviors hidden and even mislead people, they do so for very different reasons.  Potter never appears to act with malice, nor does he intentionally bring harm to good or neutral characters as collateral damage.  In contrast, sometimes Dresden acts with malice, and, even when his motivations are pure, he often does serious damage to bystanders.  

VI. Dresden is not just a grown up Harry Potter.

A. Despite their similarities, the two wizarding Harrys are different enough characters facing different enough challenges to present two entirely different experiences for a reader of fantasy fiction.   

B. While both are orphans, there are differences in their origin stories.

C. Friendship plays a critical role in both of their lives.

D. The nature of their enemies is different.

E. Potter remains morally good, while Dresden becomes increasingly morally ambiguous as his series progresses.

While there are certainly similarities between the two characters, it is clear that Dresden it not simply an adult version of Potter.  In fact, the two Harrys are sufficiently different to present two entirely different experiences for readers of fantasy fiction.  While both Harrys are orphans, there are enough differences in their origin stories to have shaped them in slightly different ways.  They both rely upon their friends to help them form a sense of family to help them face their enemies.  However, those enemies are different enough to cause the Harrys to react in different ways.  The main impact of that is that Potter gets to remain morally good throughout his series, while Dresden engages in behaviors that most would consider morally ambiguous, at best.   The result is that, despite their many similarities, the two Harrys are not derivative characters and should both be included in any list of must-read fantasy series. 


As you will note, in our essay, we did not include any quotations or even specific references to detailed events.  This was due, in part, to the fact that we were discussing an entire series for each character.  However, we did describe details from each series as a whole.  Depending on the style chosen for the paper, this type of reference may or may not require inclusion in a works cited, bibliography, or reference section.  For MLA formatting, which is the style for most English/ ELA papers, because the books are not cited in the essay, there would not be a required Works Cited page; however, we will include a look of works referenced after the conclusion of this essay for anyone unfamiliar with either series. 


If you follow the steps we have listed, you should be well on your way to writing a high quality compare and contrast essay.  However, remember not to stop with your rough draft.  After you have completed your first draft, go back and reread your paper to see if you have provided supporting evidence for each of your main points and whether all of your points help support your thesis.  If not, go ahead and revise your paper until it does.  Run spell-check to check for spelling errors, and proofread for grammar mistakes.  

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