Character Study: A Whole-Novel Activity
Updated: Nov 20
Students love to think about how a character develops because they too experience a lot of change. They move towns, live in two different homes, get their heart broken, have conversations about politics with their friends, encounter new ideas on social media, and react to the sometimes shocking and disappointing news of the day. They want to make their family happy but also want to be an individual person who thinks critically about the world they live in. They have to make important choices when put in situations that demand listening to their conscience and not peer pressure.
When I taught chapter by chapter, the discussion of character development happened slowly and would often get buried in discussions about themes and ideas. Students rarely considered a character’s overall development (or lack of development) unless I asked them on an essay question, but by then it was too late.
When I switched to teaching whole-novel activities where I teach topic by topic instead of chapter by chapter, I started to incorporate activities where I could ask students to think about the factors that caused a character to change. What experiences influenced their perspective and decisions? What people impacted who they became at the end of the novel? Why did the character make a mistake or succeed in achieving their objective? What social pressure prevented the character from doing the right thing? Why did the character descend into a mental rut or paralysis? Why did the character either break up with their partner or get married by the end of the story? To answer most meaningful questions about a novel, students need to consider the full picture of a character, and not just one moment.
When they look at one decision the character makes, they should be able to think about the end of the novel, and not just what’s happening. For instance, when Hamlet kills Polonius, it’s difficult to make an argument about the impact of that choice if students haven’t read the entire play. When I discuss the accidental killing with my students, we talk about Ophelia’s death, Claudius’s manipulation of the situation to Laertes, and Hamlet’s decision to not kill Claudius in the chapel. We also compare the overall development of Ophelia to Hamlet and Fortinbras to Hamlet. In the last activity of the unit, students interpret Hamlet’s four soliloquies and his reaction to finding Yorick’s skull and then create an argument about how the passages reveal Hamlet’s development.
These lengthy and important activities take a lot of time and at the end of a chapter-by-chapter unit, it’s hard to squeeze in yet another activity. I don’t usually take more than four weeks on a novel because I like to leave enough room for a student’s independent interpretation of the literature (and they get bored). I focus all of my class time on valuable theme-based activities instead of only discussing how the plot unfolds. This way, I give myself more time for meaningful project-based learning.
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