The plot of a story is integrally linked to the characters. The development of the plot is revealed through the characters’ actions and the characters’ actions are derived from their values and attitudes (Aristotle, 2013). Identifying these elements is a complex task requiring the integration of word recognition, working memory, monitoring skills and a background knowledge of human needs, motives, emotions and relationships. Once readers can make inferences about the characters, they are in a better position to determine the underlying themes or messages contained within the story.
Outlined below are a few suggestions for teaching characterisation and analysing characters.
Graphic organisers provide a systematic means of extracting relevant information and displaying this information in a visual framework to show how information is related. In terms of characterisation, graphic organisers might require students to find information about a character’s behaviours, thoughts, speech or appearance and then link these to beliefs or traits. There are many different types of graphic organisers you could use, but below is one example.
|Title||Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch by Eileen Spinelli|
|Setting||Mr Hatch’s neighbourhood|
|Main Character||Mr Hatch|
|Other Characters||Mr Goober, Mr Smith, Mr Todd, Mr & Mrs Dunwoody, Tina, children|
|Event: Beginning||Action, Speech, Thoughts, Other characters’ behaviour||Main Character’s Feelings|
|Mr Hatch lives alone.
Every day is the same.
|He did not smile.
He sat alone in a corner.
|Event: First||Action, Speech, Thoughts, Other characters’ behaviour||Main Character’s Feelings|
|Mr Hatch gets a box of chocolates with a note saying, “Somebody loves you.”||“Who would send this to me?
“I’ve got a secret admirer.”
Laughed, danced, clapped hands.
|Event: Second||Action, Speech, Thoughts, Other characters’ behaviour||Main Character’s Feelings|
|Mr Hatch dresses up and surprises his neighbours by helping them||Spent his days smiling, laughing.
Tried different things.
Took an interest in other people and helped them.
|Event: End||Action, Speech, Thoughts, Other characters’ behaviour||Main Character’s Feelings|
|Mr Hatch discovers box wasn’t sent to him.
Neighbours created a surprise.
|Sighed, “Nobody loves me.” Returns to old habits.
Porch full of hearts, bows, candy and streamers and neighbours
Surprised, happy, not lonely
The QAR strategy consists of four different types of questions: Right there questions, Think and search questions, Author and you questions and On my own questions. Incorporate the four types of questions to help students make connections between characters and their behaviours and values.
Right There Questions: Literal questions where the answers can be found in the text.
Q. How do we know that Mr Hatch was happy and excited to have a secret admirer?
A. He laughed and danced and clapped his hands.
Think and Search Questions: Answers are gathered from several parts of the text and put together to make meaning.
Q. How do we know that Mr Hatch was lonely?
A. He sat alone to eat his lunch, lived by himself, never talked to anyone and kept to himself.
Author and You: These questions are based on information provided in the text but the student is required to relate it to their own experience. Although the answer does not lie directly in the text, the student must have read it in order to answer the question.
Q. What do you think Mr Hatch will receive on Valentine Day next year?
A. Various responses such as: A huge box of candy from all his neighbours OR Lots of boxes of candy from the neighbours OR an invitation to a neighbourhood party, etc.
On My Own: These questions do not require the student to have read the passage but he/she must use their background or prior knowledge to answer the question.
Q. What do you do when you’re feeling sad and lonely?
A. Response will vary for each student.
Point of View
An understanding of point of view is also relevant to understanding characterisation. An important component of this is understanding pronouns.
|1st Person||I, me, my, mine||We, us, our, ours|
|2nd Person||You, your, yours||You, your, yours|
|3rd Person||He, him, his
She, her, hers
|They, them, their, theirs|
Make sure students can clearly identify the character referenced by the pronoun.
Match Actions to Characteristics
Re-enactments are a useful for strategy for helping students understand characterisation. In the story, there is a picture of the postman giving Mr Hatch the box. This is the accompanying text: Mr Gooper smiled. “You’re welcome. I always enjoy delivering packages.”
Discuss how Mr Gooper is feeling and what he thinks about his job. How do we know? Have students act out this scene. Make sure their posture, voice and words all reflect his feeling and attitude.
Now, discuss Mr Gooper’s behaviour and what he would say if:
- He hated delivering packages.
- He was scared of Mr Hatch.
- He was in a hurry.
- He thought his job was boring.
Have students pretend they are one of the neighbours talking to each other. How would their descriptions of Mr Hatch change from the beginning of the story to the end of the story?
Choose one item to draw for each character that represents that character is some way or draw a series of the same item which illustrates how a character changes over time. For example, you could draw a brown tie for Mr Hatch, which then changes to a red tie when he receives the package, which changes to a colourful polka dot tie. Make sure students explain how the changes to the tie symbolises changes to Mr Hatch.
Alternatively, take one object (e.g., a hat) and then draw multiple versions of that object that are representative of each of the characters. Again, students must explain how the object symbolises the character. Mr Hatch might have a top hat coloured brown because he is serious and boring, Mr Gooper the postman might have a postman’s hat coloured in a bright blue because he is cheery, etc.
Aristotle. (2013). Poetics (A. Kenny, Trans.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar
Finnegan, E.G., & Accardo, A.L. (2018). Understanding Character Perspective: Strategies to Support Students With Autism Spectrum Disorder. The Reading Teacher, 72(1), 71–80. https://doi.org/10.1002/trtr.1682