The Iron Giant. Naima. Hollis Woods. Juan de Pareja.
We readers know they are people who don’t exist but we get involved anyway.
And yet it’s simple.
They inspire is to try.
They inspire us persevere.
They inspire us to be kind.
They inspire us to take heart.
They inspire us to hope.
Great characters remind us that we may be flawed but we are incredibly able. They remind us that we are not alone. Great characters offer truths that shape and spur us on.
Think Prospero. Jane Eyre. Sherlock Holmes. Elizabeth Bennett. Atticus Finch. Jay Gatsby. Gandalf. Even Winnie-the-Pooh.
These characters, like us humans, are not one-dimensional. They are the tragically flawed heroes that inspire us to action—even if that action is simply a smile and a sigh and a moment of introspection at the end of the read.
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“A bear, however hard he tries, grows tubby without exercise.”
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
“Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
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Generally Speaking, when it comes to understanding literary characters, actions speak louder than words.
Will they, like Frodo, carry the ring into Mordor? Or, like Edmund, eat the Turkish delight?
The main thing to keep in mind when considering the “character” of a literary character is this: Does the character act/think/feel this way all the time, or is this only a momentary response?
Just like real life, a character’s actions speak louder than words. Take Goldilocks. We’re all familiar with her adventure in the home of the three bears and her conundrum deciding which porridge to eat. On the surface, at first superficial glance, Goldilocks seem cute, an innocent little girl. It might be easy to describe Goldilocks as simply curious. Is Goldilocks always curious? Sure.
But might we infer that she is hungry or confused? If so is she always hungry? Always confused? And do these traits often lead her into all sorts of mischief? Maybe in the moment.
Let’s think again. What do the actions of Goldilocks within the context of the story really tell us about who she is?
Goldilocks seems greedy—eating food that does not belong to her without asking. She is for sure picky—dipping her spoon into every bowl before she finds the one she feels is “just right.” She seems selfish—freely taking for her own whatever goody presents itself. But is this who she is at her core?
These are aspects of character we gather about Goldilocks as we read her story. As we trace these traits throughout the story. We stumble upon more evidence later on when Goldilocks undergoes a similar situation involving the beds of the bears. In the end, these traits seem to be ingrained in her personality and give us insight into who Goldilocks is as a whole character.
The traits of Goldilocks are perse, but I think we’d all agree her actions at the home of the three bears are greedy and picky and selfish.
When it comes to character traits, literary characters truly are the sum of their actions.