Center the protagonist

Time limit: At least an hour and a half

Age limit:  High school students in their third or fourth year, and first and second year college students

Once in a while when the plot of a short story or novel is fairly complicated and if I feel that the class dynamics are such that students will be amenable to participate,  after a series of preliminary steps, I ask for a student volunteer to pretend to be the protagonist and to respond to questions as if he or she were the protagonist; and then I ask the rest of the students to choose other characters, sometimes even concepts such as various religious beliefs evident in the story, the legal system, a possible employer within the narrative’s context, etc.  However, I do believe that viewing the protagonist from the eyes of other characters usually flushes out the other societal constructs.

Ideally most of the students will have read most or all of the work of literature; and previous discussions regarding plot, characters, setting and scene, conflict, climax, technique, meaning, etc., have been held.  This technique could be used earlier in the discussion of a short story or a novel, but the problem with doing so is that without giving away further developments some erroneous ideas regarding a certain character’s motivation could creep in and not leave the students’ minds unless those ideas are pried loose.

If, for instance, I were to use this technique in a discussion of The Round House by Louise Erdrich, the winner of the 2012 National Book Award, I would wait at least until students have read chapter nine, hopefully in response to the reading schedule. By that time almost all of the characters have been introduced and their personalities fairly apparent, and the plot and subplots are clear, even if not all the subplots have been resolved.  This exercise will help them understand character motivation and conflict more in-depth.  Besides it helps develop empathy, which differs markedly from sympathy and which I consider essential in the personality development of any human.

The Round House has numerous characters; however, the major ones are significant actors in many of the subplots.   Joe, the main character in The Round House, narrates a series of events as an adult male looking back on his life as a thirteen-year-old adolescent.  We have his immediate family, his extended family of which Mooshum, his grandfather, is the most colorful, his friends, the antagonist and the antagonist’s sister, the FBI agent, the sheriff, etc.

Before I introduce the exercise, I write the character’s name Joe in the center of a whiteboard. Then I ask students to brainstorm a list of characters, to provide succinct identifying information for each character, and to indicate that character’s relationship to Joe.  Those relationships could be indicated by drawing lines to Joe, clustering. Then I would distribute a list of the characters, ask if any are missing, and fill in the gaps.  Perhaps here would be a good time to reintroduce and/or discuss flat and round characters, point of view, etc.

After I would introduce this particular exercise and its purpose, such as to flush out meaning, to view characters as real people in situations, and I would ask for a volunteer who feels that he or she understands Joe well enough to answer any questions thrown at him to seat him or herself in the center of the room.  The rest of us would take positions in a circle around Joe.

I would ask each of the other students to choose a few characters that each  feels as if they understand so that each student will be a different character.  As each volunteers, the choice becomes limited, so it’s imperative that in a class of 20 or more to provide suggestions for the student.  Encourage students to portray  the main characters, especially Cappy, Linda Wishkob and her brother, Linden, who more than likely should be viewed as the antagonist.

I would ask them to make a preliminary list of the identifying factors for their character, their age, race, social position, those factors that affect them, their skills, etc.  Then I would ask them to make a preliminary list of questions that each would like to ask Joe, the main character.

Then in no particular order but as each volunteers, each student assumes as best as he or she can the personality of the character that he or she has chosen and poses a question to Joe regarding his action, his motivation, what he might think of that character, etc.  If the person portraying Joe is unable to answer, that would be a good time to discuss development, point of view again, etc.  Class members might offer suggestions.  A discussion of what constitutes good interpretation, the role of facts in a story, etc., often helps in this area.

Joe, in turn, can pose a question to the character. For instance, Joe might ask Sonja why she felt it necessary to purchase the diamond earrings or why his mother, Geraldine, was afraid at first to tell him and his father who raped her. This type of question and answer exercise can help students fill in the gaps in their reading, correct misinterpretations of the action, etc.

Sometimes I would select a short selection or two that contains dialogue and ask those students who assumed those characters’ roles to read that selection.

This particular exercise would be difficult if not impossible to accomplish in a 50-minute class, unless the short story is short and fairly simple.  But what great literature is simple? I suggest if the class period is only 50 minutes are so, that the preliminary work be done in the first class period, such as listing characters, their relationship to Joe.  But I would not give any indication as to the exercise, especially not ask for volunteers on that first day, for more than likely, a class member who had volunteered to portray someone significant will be absent on the second day.

On the second day, distribute the list of characters, discuss the exercise, and proceed.

This exercise needs to be at least for an hour and a half class or part of a night class.

Ideally, in addition to student feedback, concluding comments, there should be a follow-up exercise so the students can reflect on the exercise.  A simple in-class free-writing exercise that requires them to respond to one of the following could be effective: “What did you learn about the story today that you did not know before?” “How do you feel about the character that you portrayed?  Did your feelings change as a result of the exercise?”  You might have each student pick another character other than Joe and compare and contrast that character to the one that he or she portrayed.

Harper Collins has an excellent list of discussion questions, some of which can serve as prompts for longer essays.

Other substantive material can be found at the following:

In addition, because of the immense popularity of this book, there are numerous online reviews that students can easily access.