Elements of Literature: Types of Characters

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Students will be able to acquire definitions of characters, protagonist, and antagonist by reading about characters, viewing and discussing a video clip, and writing Cornell notes.

Big Idea

The good, the bad, and the characters. Students see the ugly truth of what a protagonist and antagonist really are over two days.

Reading About Characters

20 minutes

We started out by reading the definitions of the types of characters from our literature textbook, The Language of Literature, put out by McDougal Littell. If you use this textbook, you know that the definitions are all over the place.  There's a paragraph here, a paragraph there, a big chunk in the middle, a little bit there, and oh yeah, over there too. My solution to all this flipping around? A reference sheet.  This handy-dandy resource has a collection of details about general characters from the textbook on one side. The other side has a collection of details about characters in plays, fables, historical fiction, and farces.

For my honors classes, I asked students to take turns reading the passages to each other. For my inclusion classes, either my co-teacher or I read the passage aloud, then asked students to read aloud.  Since I numbered the passages, I was able to assign a number to students.  In my smallest class, each student got their own number.  In my larger classes, I paired up students.  One student read the even numbered passages and the other student read the odd numbered passages.  While students read aloud to each other, I listened to individual students read.

We read that characters are the people, animals, or imaginary creatures in the story. Characters are defined by their traits (permanent qualities) and revealed by their motives (reasons for behaving).  Characters often change throughout the story.  Those characters are called dynamic characters.  Characters that stay the same are static characters. . The key details for protagonist was that a protagonist is the main character, the character that struggles with a conflict.  The antagonist is the character that struggles against that protagonist.

After we read the passages, students created a cheat sheet of definitions similar to the picture to the left.  Students divided their paper into eight sections--two rows and four columns and wrote one vocabulary word in each box.  Next, I asked students to work together to write a short definition for each of the words.  For example, for static character, a simple definition would be 'a character that doesn't change.'  I also asked students to cite the passage that most helped them write their definition. I gave students about five minutes to write their definitions. Here's a copy that you can download and print.You could also use Cornell notes for this step.  Here's a copy of the Cornell note template set up for characters

Once the time was up, I asked two or three pairs to share their definitions.  This gave me an opportunity to check what students wrote for protagonist and antagonist, which I also did while students were working.  Students love to say that protagonists are the good guys and antagonists are the bad guys.  No.  Just no.  I can accept that the protagonist is the hero of the story, but the definition of protagonist is not 'the good guy.'  No.   The protagonist is the character that face a conflict.  It's the character who's story it is.  It is the hero. It is not the good guy.  The antagonist is not the bad guy.  It is the character who causes conflict for the main character, the protagonist.

Protagonist, Antagonist, Good Guys, Bad Guys

25 minutes

It is extremely difficult to get seventh grade students to understand that the protagonist is the main character, the character whose story it is, and not 'the good guy' and that an antagonist is not 'the bad guy.' A couple of years ago, while watching Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog for the mumbleyty time I realized that the exposition clearly shows the difference between protagonist and antagonist.  I have the DVD, but it is also easily found on YouTube.  I only showed the first thirteen minutes or so because that's enough to see the difference between protagonist and antagonist and some parts are not 100% appropriate for seventh graders.

While students watched the exposition, I asked them to think about what types of characters they were seeing.  Which characters were the protagonist and antagonist?  Which characters were probably major and minor? Round and flat?  Static and dynamic? Since we weren't going to watch all of it, we couldn't know for sure which ones would turn out to be static or dynamic, but students could make predictions based on what they were seeing and their previous knowledge of stock characters. As students considered the characters and categories, I asked them to write down the character's names on their handout from the previous section (where they wrote the terms and definitions).

Some questions I asked to help students included the following:

  • Who is this story about? (Dr.Horrible)
  • Who causes that character conflicts? What conflicts does that character cause? (Captain Hammer stops Dr. Horrible from stealing the wonderflonium and stops him from progressing with Penny).
  • Who appears to be a major character? (Dr. Horrible, Penny, Captain Hammer)
  • Which characters appear to be minor? (Moist, Bad Horse's messengers, security officers)

After we watched the clip, we discussed what they'd written down. By the end of the lesson, students could clearly see that the protagonist of Dr. Horrible is Dr. Horrible, even though Dr. Horrible is. . . horrible and evil.  It's Dr. Horrible's  story of his quest to get into the Evil League of Evil.  The character that causes him conflicts is Captain Hammer, the stereotypically good guy, because he foils all of Dr. Horrible's plans, from stealing the wonderflonium to getting the girl.  Dr. Horrible, Captain Hammer,and Penny are all major characters. Moist and the Bad Horse's messengers are minor characters and flat characters.  Moist's only character trait is that he is . . . moist.  Captain Hammer is also a flat character because he only has a few character traits, whereas Dr. Horrible has some depth to his character and so he wold be classified as a round character.

Responding in Writing

5 minutes

To end today's lesson, I asked students to respond in writing.  I asked them to write about what they understood about the different types of characters and how watching Dr. Horrible helped them understand the different types of characters.

Like always, I asked students to write a T3C paragraph.  The topic sentence would introduce what they now understand.  The concrete evidence and commentary would explain specifically about how Dr. Horrible helped them understand the characters and would also include definitions.  The concluding sentence would state any questions they still have.

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