Posts Tagged ‘character’

The staircase (continued): Character

January 24, 2016

This is the next level in terms of depth of engagement with a text: there are various questions to consider. Is a character convincing (if the writer is writing a realist novel)? If it’s a fantasy, then the criteria may be rather different, but somewhere along the line issues of plausibility or credibility come in to play as necessary to convince us to stay with a particular text. We need to be interested in a character’s progress and development – hence the popularity of the bildungsroman, for example. That’s what keeps us interested in Jane Eyre, in Villette, in some of Somerset Maugham‘s novels, to name a few.

This is also the next level of analysis: we can consider not only the individual characters, but also the relationships between them, and whether we find their interactions convincing. We may encounter such things as the development of romance, feuding, issues of loyalty and betrayal, exploration of friendships… We will also have our own response to specific characters – we may like or dislike them, want certain things for them in terms of the plot development: they take on lives of their own, independent of the author, even though they are the creations of that author. This can lead to us disliking the ending of a novel because it does not turn out the way we think it should have done…

For an illustration, I turn to two of my favourite characters, Holmes and Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories. The relationship between them is quite sketchy, as are their individual characters in general. But there is a relationship, starting off from an engineered encounter, introductions and their negotiating the terms on which they will share rooms. As the stories progress, we see through small details the trust that develops between them, the things they like and dislike in each other, the differences between them. Watson is twice married in the stories, and moves out of 221b Baker Street; he has a medical practice of his own at one point, and yet what we might find rather unconvincing is the ease with which his long-suffering wife allows him to join Holmes on any and every caper when he is asked… Holmes’ response is very touching on the couple of occasions where he realises he has overstepped the mark, and exposed his loyal friend to too great a danger. Though the detective stories are the most important thing, as readers we are glad to meet the pair again, in some familiar surroundings, but about to embark on a new adventure. Incidentally, this is probably why I do not like the new modern takes on Holmes, but that’s another matter.

Looking at a couple of more serious examples, from a novel I loved to teach – To Kill A Mockingbird – we can see how skilfully Harper Lee uses her characters in the book. We have the complex relationship between brother and sister, parent and child relationship between them and their single parent father, and then more generally the whole range of relationships between adults and children is put under the microscope: Dill’s sad and fantasised relationship with his father, the strange relationship between Boo and Arthur Radley, Boo’s protectiveness towards the children, Mayella’s appalling relationship with her father which is shockingly laid bare at the trial…

Because we are people too, we can live vicariously through the characters of a novel, and this seems to me why the characters are the make or break element in the success of a book: if there’s no-one who speaks to us, to interest us, to grab our attention and have us interested in their fate – imaginary though it is – why would we bother?

Teaching Literature: the staircase

January 20, 2016

I used to use a metaphor, the novel as a staircase, when I was teaching English Literature. It’s an idea I think students found helpful, and it works, with differing levels of sophistication, at all the stages of teaching. It’s a small staircase: it has only three stairs. The bottom step is labelled ‘plot‘, the second ‘character‘ and the top one ‘themes and ideas‘. If you’re an ex-student of mine, you can stop reading now and go get a cup of tea.

The staircase offers a sequence for exploring a novel (or indeed any work of literature that tells a story); it also offers a way of showing students how to develop their analytical skills and move from lower to higher marks and grades.

Plot is the bottom level; without it you can’t have a story. If you don’t know the plot, can’t understand it, sequence it and summarise it, you aren’t going to get very far in an examination. If you have plot secure in your mind, you will be able to write some sense and get some marks.

Character is the next step up: you need characters in a story, you need to know who they are and how they interact, and understand their personalities to an extent. Secure understanding here enables a student to access the next stages in a mark scheme, and consequently higher marks.

The top step is the themes and ideas: what the writer has to say and wants her/his readers to be thinking about, reflecting on as they are reading. As a reader, you can have an opinion about these ideas, and it doesn’t have to be the same as the writer’s. The more you can analyse at this level, the more chance you have of accessing the very highest grades on offer.

The idea isn’t rocket science, and I never claimed it was; it took a number of years to evolve into what I’ve presented above. It worked well with a lot of the texts I taught, particularly at GCSE, (although I introduced the concept in outline much earlier), such as To Kill A Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth. Now I find myself unconsciously applying the model to other novels or plays I’m reading: it offers a useful scaffold or framework for exploring a text.

Lesson over. For those who would like more detail, I’ll write more fully in upcoming posts. Who knows, someone may find this stuff useful; in my retirement, I no longer use it.

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