The Current Logo

Characterization in Novels

Written by Ted Baechtold
January 16, 2012

Understanding and Evaluating Characterization in Novels

The idea behind this unit is for students to develop a greater understanding of how authors create characters using various categories of character traits and then evaluate how well those representations reflect reality. These traits include physical, identity, and social/moral. Several activities described below were used as part of this unit.

In my case, the students read two different novels, The Secret Life of Bees and The Kite Runner, as the basis for this exploration. We used The Secret Life of Bees to develop our understanding. While reading, the students used an individual wiki in our class Moodle to record their interpretations of the characters as they were introduced in the novel. Those comments helped promote classroom discussions about the characters. Once the novel was completed, students produced a written analysis of a chosen character and how the author developed that character using one of the categories identified.

Once that essay was completed, we moved onto The Kite Runner. The activity supporting this novel involved a well-developed web search using the annotation features of Diigo prior to reading of the novel. Once completed, the students used the knowledge of the geographic, religious, social, and moral characteristics of the region and people of the region to guide their reading. In addition to reading the novel, we also watched the film adaptation to promote a better understanding of how the author and producer of the film developed the various characters. Students were asked to produce an essay evaluating the development of the characters based on their knowledge of the region and understanding of characterization using the above-mentioned traits. In addition to the essays, students were also asked to answer a set of reflection questions for each essay to allow them to better gauge their understanding of these concepts related to characterization. Those reflections provided insight into their thinking and development of their essays. This unit took roughly six weeks to complete.

This unit is designed to engage students more deeply into the development of characters in literature. These characterizations apply to all forms of literature. The purposes of this unit are for students to:

  • develop a more critical understanding of characterization
  • discover how physical, identity, and moral/social traits influence readers
  • practice close reading of two different novels
  • understand the importance of research in the development of characters

Common Core Standards for English Language Arts (6-12)

  • Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed) (Reading, Grades 9-12, Standard 3).
  • Produce writing in which the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience (Writing, Grades 6-12, Standard 4).
  • Write in response to literary or informational sources, drawing evidence from the text to support analysis and reflection as well as to describe what they have learned (Writing, Grades 6-12, Standard 9).

Indiana State Standards

Students read and respond to grade-level-appropriate historically or culturally significant works of literature, such as the selections in the, which illustrate the quality and complexity of the materials to be read by students. At Grade 12, students read a wide variety of fiction, such as classic and contemporary literature, historical fiction, fantasy, science fiction, folklore, mythology, poetry, short stories, dramas, and other genres (Reading: Comprehension and Analysis of Literary Texts, Standard 12.3).

Students continue to combine the rhetorical strategies of narration, exposition, persuasion, and description; to produce reflective compositions, historical investigation reports, and job applications and resumes; and to deliver multimedia presentations. Student writing demonstrates a command of Standard English and the research, organizational, and drafting strategies outlined in Standard 4 – Writing Processes and Features. Writing demonstrates an awareness of the audience (intended reader) and purpose for writing (Writing: Applications—Different Types of Writing and Their Characteristics, Standard 12.5).

Relevant Big Ideas

The traits an author chooses to develop in a character inform and influence a reader’s response to that character.

As readers, various character analysis’ methods shape our understanding and learning about the characters in film and literature.

Analyzing characters through physical, identity, and social/moral traits requires an awareness of how characters connect to the themes and the broader social, cultural, and political issues represented in film and literature.


Character traits: the qualities exhibited by characters in literature and film to allow readers and viewers to identify with those characters. We use the ideas of Karen Kay, author and teacher, who states:
Character traits fall into three main categories: physical, identity, and social/moral. Physical traits refer to the character’s appearance, not only their looks, but also their style of clothing and body language. A character’s identity is made up of personality traits, such as habits and quirks, vices, psychological/emotional problems, and behavior. Their identity also includes external things, such as occupation, education, and hobbies. Social/moral traits define how a character interacts with others and his or her code of ethics.

Characterization: the decisions to offer in indirect and direct ways insight into a character and what he or she may represent or believe in.

Character Analysis: identifying what features about a character provides insight into that character. These features can be stated directly (direct characterization) by the author or indirectly through actions, dialogue, and what others say about the character (indirect characterization).

Theme: the topic or issue that the author is promoting through the development of story and character.

Advanced Planning
This unit involves materials and activities using print and technology resources. As such, you may need to do the following in advance of beginning the unit:

  • Setup on online network (I used Moodle) to facilitate online work.
  • Purchase or have students purchase these books for use in this unit. We had received classroom sets of these novels in our latest book adoption.
  • Reserve or arrange access to the computer lab for online activities.
  • Setup individual student wikis to record observations
  • Purchase the film adaptation of one or both books. I only used The Kite Runner, but could have used The Secret Life of Bees as well.

Instructional Plan
Pre-Assessment (pre-reading discussion)—The Secret Life of Bees

Provide students a blank handout that identifies the Relevant Big Ideas and Formalisms (see above). Working in pairs, I asked the students (seniors) to use prior knowledge to define and perhaps give an example from one of our previously read short stories for each term (Adaptation: students could define individually and then we could in our discussion come up with example from either previously read pieces or even film).
Once these were completed, we reconvened as a class to discuss the definitions (and come up universal definitions that could be applied in our class) and offer examples. These collaborative responses were posted in the room and were used throughout the unit as reference.

The Reading Schedule
We started with The Secret Life of Bees. Our reading schedule involved reading at least two chapters each night. The two chapters allowed for a bit slower pace, but promoted a little more thoughtfulness when combined with the activity described below.

Reading Activity
Within the Moodle, each student had an individual wiki that allowed for them to record their observations related to character development and characterization as they were reading. A response was expected for minimally every two chapters of the novel, which became the basis for discussions each day. These observations, along with our discussions, centered on characterization and how this was done by the author and its impact on the reader became the basis for the essay they students produced at the end of the novel.

The Essay
Once the novel was completed, we used the following handouts to guide the production of the essay.

  • Writing about the Novel—The Secret Life of Bees
  • Rubric for The Secret Life of Bees
  • Reflection Questions
    (After writing the essays, students were asked to complete the Reflection Questions, which were submitted along with the essays.

Pre-Assessment (pre-reading activity)The Kite Runner
Because this novel deals with a part of the world that few of my students were familiar, I asked that they do some preliminary web search and annotation of sites using Diigo ( We started with the websites for the novel and film and worked from there. Students were asked to locate, read, and annotate five websites related to the region’s social, political, religious, and historical background. The purpose of this activity is to help students build schema prior to reading, so that they can better understand the subtle nuances and characterizations within the novel.
Students were given two class periods to work on this individually or in small groups, but were expected to finish the activity outside of class, if needed.

The Reading Schedule
As with TSLoB, we took roughly two weeks to read and discuss this novel. Our discussions were centered on how the author characterized the various characters and how those characters reflected the region, based on the web activity done prior to reading. Students took notes during the discussions as characters and their connections to the region were discussed. These became the basis for the essay produced at the end of the unit. As additional insight into the story and the region, we also watched the film adaptation of The Kite Runner. Students added comments to their notes as we watched and discussed the film.

The Essay
Once the novel was completed, we used the following handouts to guide the production of the essay.

Students were reminded that for this essay I would place more emphasis on the reflection than on the actual essay. Students submitted the essay and reflection questions at their completion, with the essay being completed first.

With these two novels, assessment occurred on several layers. The Pre-Assessment activities (the Wiki and Diigo annotations) were graded for completion only. With the essays and responses to the reflection questions, I graded both, but the primary assessment was done with the essay on TSLoB and the reflection on TKR. The idea being that a thoughtful and well-written reflection should identify not only the student’s understanding of the concepts of characterization, but also show their ability to articulate the process and the main points they made and supported within their essays.

Post-Assessment Discussions
After I have returned their essays and reflections with my comments, we had a sort of debriefing related to the novel and characterization unit.  Nearly unanimously, students agreed they developed through this unit a much better understanding of characterization and its importance to the stories. They felt as though the activities helped them, although technical issues for some with the Diigo caused some concerns about it usefulness. Some of these problems may be been an internal network conflict, which has since hopefully been resolved. Some other issues uncovered during our discussions revolved around the timing of the unit—it was the last unit of their senior year, so senioritis was an issue—and also the amount of time allotted. Several students expressed concern as AP exams and the multitude of senior-related activities caused several to miss class during the unit. Another issue surrounding the unit involved the timing of the reflection. I asked that they submit their essays prior to turning in their reflections. In hindsight, it would have been better to have allowed revision of the essays after they had done the reflections. Many of the students saw the areas that needed improvement during their reflecting on the essays and the process, which they could have revised. As stated previously, the timing of the unit did not help in this area as well. We literally did not have time after completing this unit to do the revision. Again, scheduling this unit to allow for this additional step in the writing process would alleviate this concern and allow for the revisions to occur.
Open Characterization in Novels Rubric 2011.doc
Open Reflection_Questions_for_The_Secret_Life_of_Bees 2011.doc
Open Reflection Questions for The Kite Runner mh.doc
Open Characterization in Novels 2011.doc
Open Building on the Bees and Characters.doc

Using Characterization with The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

Using my previous work with the novels The Secret Life of Bees and The Kite Runner, I adapted the characterization essay to a shorted and a little less intimidating extended paragraph using The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.  Our senior curriculum is based on British literature, so this was a fairly easy adaptation to make.


This unit differed from the previously mentioned in that it was quite a bit more structured and sequential in development.  We started out discussing extensively how characters are developed in text and other media.  I showed several film clips from A Knight’s Tale that use Geoffrey Chaucer as a character.  I applied the concepts of Karen Kay and her three classes of character traits: physical, identity, and social/moral, to the character in the film.

Once we had watched and discussed these clips, we moved to Chaucer’s Prologue and discussed ihe idea of a pilgimmage and his recording of these stories.  We also spent some time discussing how text and other media can go way beyond just telling a story or reporting an event and can actually represent society ideals and mores, as well as concerns.  Before beginning, we reviewed the concepts of direct and indirect characterization and how author’s may use them to develop characters.

This unit was used with four different classes of mainstream seniors.  Within these classes, these existed a wide variety of reading levels, so the reading schedule varied from class to class.  We did choose to read and discuss the piece as a class, so the reading took from 10 class periods to nearly 15 for one class.

As we were reading, I asked students to record characterizations they saw for each of the characters.  This promoted a little more engagement with the text, but also helped as they prepared to write about a character of their choice and the ideas of characterization.  When we began the writing, I demonstrated the prewriting I did for the attached example on the Cook, the only character I did not let them choose.

We spent most of a week working our way through the drafting of this paragraph, including how to integrate the quotes/paraphrases for the characters.  We did a highlighting exercise to help students idenitfy the various parts of the pargraph.  Additionally, students did a peer edit and answered the reflection questions before submitting the piece.
Open Chaucer_Paragraph_Example_1011 2-revised.doc
Open Reflection Questions for The Prologue Chaucer.doc

Related posts