Understanding a character’s traits and motivation can be tricky business. It requires some theory of mind – working to know what another is thinking, that is not the same as what I am thinking. There are very few novels written where the author comes right out to say, “He was a tall boy with hazel eyes. He was often shy when around strangers, but had a natural gift with animals.” And when they do, they often draw criticism. Therefore, it is our job to provide students who do not always pick up the clues about a character that the author has left for his or her reader, a means through which to track down this information, for later inferencing.
In fact, I once met with a rising sixth grade student, who was “accelerated” in reading, but struggled to answer one of his summer reading blog prompts: How does a character in your book change from the beginning to the end of the story? He was extremely frustrated and had come to me saying, “I looked in the book for the answer. I cannot find it. How am I supposed to know how the character changed, if the author doesn’t tell me?” First, I shared the type of question it was (Author and Me), so searching in one or more parts of the book would not be enough to answer the question. I believe, had I been aware of the strategy below, I would have calmed the frustration of this student more effectively than I did (although I was able to do so with some explanation about what question was asking and how to go about answering it).
Arianna Good, a learning support teacher who works with middle school students shared a tool that works with students on the autism spectrum because it calls for students to record explicitly the following information to facilitate “understanding” a character about whom they are reading. It requires the students to remember the acronym STEAL, and then track through textual evidence the following pieces of information.
Speech – What does the character say? How does the character speak?
Thoughts – What is revealed through the character’s private thoughts and feelings?
Effect – What is revealed through the character’s effect on other people? How do other characters feel or behave in reaction to the character?
Actions – What does the character do? How does the character behave?
Looks – What does the character look like? How does the character dress?
She and I have found it successful because there was a clear expectation for students to answer each of the questions about the character, all of which revealed important information about the character’s traits and whether or not he or she would change throughout the course of the text.
Ultimately, we want to guide readers to posit theories about characters and work to back up these ideas with evidence from the text. It can be helpful to have students look for patterns in characters, which is similar to the idea of knowing common themes in a text. For instance, in addition to the protagonist and antagonist, there is often a character that plays the role of mentor (which aligns to Beers and Probst’s (2012) signpost of “Words of the Wiser”): a tempter, a sidekick, a skeptic, an emotional character, and a logical character. It is also important to teach students that characters are complex and can cross over into more than one category (like human beings). Knowing these archetypes for characters in novels can guide a student into understanding why they act the way they do in the story.