Understanding Characters in Texts Years 11/12 English

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Year 11/12 students studying Mainstream English texts in AOS1: Reading and Creating Texts and Reading and Comparing Texts, need to look carefully at the characters in their texts to be able to write an analytical interpretation for their SACs and the final English exam.

Understanding Characters in Texts

Characters generate the action of narratives /plays / films so they engage us as readers / viewers by their roles in the stories and we often become emotionally engaged by their fortunes and misfortunes, their aspirations and challenges.  If we understand the characters we come a long way to understanding the themes and values presented in the text and how the author constructs meaning.

What Do We Need to Know About Characters?

To build an understanding of characters it is a good idea to create a list of information about them that includes:

  1. Their name and age that spans the narrative
  2. If they are a protagonist (main character) or minor character
  3. Where they live or if they move around in the narrative
  4. If there is a description of what they look like (will be able to see a physical appearance if in a play or film)
  5. Their main personal qualities, attitudes and values, decisions and choices made, life experiences (which may change as the narrative develops)
  6. Relationships with other characters and interactions with others
  7. Key allies and enemies
  8. Key events in the narrative that affect their lives ie. crisis points or resolution

How Do Characters Respond at Crisis Points in the Narrative or Change as Events Unfold?

Characters can be tested at crisis and turning points in the narrative and are forced to make choices and decisions, which in turn reveal their true priorities and aspirations.  Difficult choices and decisions that characters make in narrative texts are closely linked to ideas and values.

Like real people characters are not static but develop and adapt sometimes changing dramatically.  Important changes should be noted such as a shift in the way a character thinks or interacts with another, a transformation of the way they think of themselves and a change in their own beliefs and values.

The Importance of Narrative Viewpoint

The narrative viewpoint determines what we know about the characters and how we as readers relate to them.  Narrative viewpoint perspectives are:

  1. First Person Narrative Voice = Where a character uses the first person ‘I’ gives an inside account of events but limits the reader’s knowledge to one person’s perspective.
  2. Third Person Narrative Voice = Where the voice is located outside the text and uses ‘he, she, they’ to give a more detached and objective account. In effect the reader is put in a position of observer rather than participant.  May be an ‘omniscient’ or all knowing narrator which allows the reader to know the thoughts and feelings of as many characters as the author wishes.  This narrator encourages the reader to form their own judgements and see complexities in issues.

Characters in Non-Fiction

In a non-fiction narrative the author portrays real people rather than imaginary ones and so they have to stick to the real facts and may be even have photographs of the characters in the text.  However, the author’s own attitudes towards the characters can affect the way the reader interprets those characters.  In effect readers are subjected to the feelings of the author about the character and sometimes these feelings can be extremely subjective.

Characters in Drama and Films

Characters portrayed by actors in plays and films are obviously conveyed visually and by sound as much as the words in their dialogue.  In this way other elements help to make viewers understand a character either by visual elements such as costumes, sets, facial expressions and body movements.  Conveying meaning can be shown through directors stage directions, mise en scene, camera angles, sound tracks, music as well as the actors own style and how they represent the character they are portraying.

Identifying Themes, Ideas and Values of Characters

It is really important to identify the main themes, ideas and values of characters so you can respond to the perspective of the author through their characters and also explore the ‘big picture’ the text is trying to explore.

  1. What is a Theme?

Themes are more general terms that the author is either showing clearly or inferring by implication repeated throughout the whole text.  These general themes can be perspectives explored in texts such as:

growing up gender issues
love family
injustice prejudice
war power
survival
  1. What is an Idea?

An idea reflects on part of the theme and is the author’s message about the topic.  Think of an idea as part of the big picture that the text uses as its conduit to explore the main theme.  You can discuss different ideas and characters highlighting through their difference how people are and see the world.  Ideas can reflect the discoveries, emotions, conflicts, and experiences of a story’s main character.  They are commentaries about the way the world works and or how the author views human existence.

  1. What is a Value?

These make up our belief system.  Values are beliefs that guide our behaviour. Values define what we accept as good, right or acceptable.  We may have our own personally thought-out and constructed values but many of the values we accept are socially or culturally constructed.  Characters embody values through their thoughts, feelings and attitudes, beliefs and actions.  Values that are generally held by society:

honesty loyalty
patriotism tolerance
integrity justice
equality respect for others
compassion responsibility

See also my earlier Post on Construction of Meaning in Texts for AOS1