Engaging with Characters

Posted: October 29, 2013 in Education, Humanity, Literature


Making students see the value in reading is a tough task. Most students do not read much on their own and when they do, as I have stated in a previous post, they usually pick up reading material that lacks depth.

When introducing my course on the first day, I tell the students not to treat the novels and stories as separate entities from ourselves – in order to understand and empathize, we have to engage. As readers, we have to build a relationship with the characters that we’re reading about. I understand, however, that much of the responsibility lies with the author to create a character that’s engaging in the first place – noted.

When a reader engages with the character (positively or negatively), they will engage in the story. When I think of characters that I’ve connected with, the list is a long one. I have connected with characters that are just like me, characters that are unlike me (but I can empathize with their situation), and characters who are the complete opposite of me, which (in and of itself) is intriguing.

Sadly, it wasn’t until grade 12 where I was forced to read, which has now become one of my favourite novels, John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany – a daunting 500+ page read. It was in that same year that I was also forced to read Life of Pi (Martel) for an independent study unit. Though the characters of both novels were not like me in many ways, I found their situations fascinating and I knew I could build a relationship out of that.

A Prayer for Owen Meany had me hooked from the first line:

“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” (Irving, 1).

That first line, in my opinion, is one of the most prolific openings to a novel I have ever encountered. In one simple line, I am introduced to two characters and a concept. One of the characters (Owen Meany) is small, has a wrecked voice, has killed the narrator’s mother, and developed the narrator into a Christian – somehow. The other character will narrate, had his mother killed by Owen, and is now presently a Christian. The concept: “Instrument.” More than anything, I wanted to know what kind of relationship Owen and (who we later meet as) John Wheelwright had where Owen could simultaneously (seemingly) kill John’s mother, but also turn John into a Christian…

Characters will often not be a mirror image to ourselves, nor would we find ourselves in their situation, but as readers we’ll often find positive or negative qualities in their personality or situation that allow us to engage. My students don’t necessarily have to agree with the characters or even like them, but to feel something for them is all a part of engaging.


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