Building characters

Goals

Lesson Plan

In this exercise we'll be looking at some of the ways in which authors use language to build characters.

Writers use a variety of language features to create characters. Let's look at a short example from the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, written by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1886. At this point in the novel, Mr. Hyde is being observed by Mr. Utterson, who appears as the 'lawyer' in the extract.

Mr. Hyde was pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile, he had borne himself to the lawyer with a sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness, and he spoke with a husky, whispering and somewhat broken voice.

(1) What patterns do you notice here? What kind of character would you say Mr. Hyde is?

Notice how the writer uses a range of modifiers to build a picture of Mr. Hyde. In this text, they take the form of adjectives:

What is the role of the nouns in this regard?

Do these grammatical patterns support your ideas from question (1)? What kind of character is being built when we focus on these adjectives and nouns?

(2) How could you use grammatical labels such as modifier, adjective and noun to provide a detailed interpretation of Mr. Hyde?

Let's look at one more grammatical feature: syntax.

Notice how 'Mr. Hyde' or 'he' always appears at the beginning of each clause:

For this pattern to appear 5 times within such a short extract probably suggests that Stevenson wanted to tell us something important about Mr. Hyde.

Remember that the subject is the element in the clause that is normally the noun, noun phrase or pronoun that names the 'do-er' or 'be-er'. In this extract, Hyde always appears as the subject of the clause.

(3) What might the pattern of Hyde appearing as the subject of each clause tell us?

In doing this short analysis, we have tried to combine interpretations of a character with systematic textual analyses. Using grammatical tools can help us explain writer's choices and readerly effects, with close reference to the text.

In the next activity, you will be asked to do your own grammatical analysis for a different extract from the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde.

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Building characters: Activity

This extract is from later in the novel, where Mr. Hyde attacks a stranger in the street. Read it through, and think:

 

How does Stevenson use language to build up the character of Mr. Hyde here? What type of person do you think he is, and how do you know this? Try and use grammatical terminology in your thinking and discussions.

 

 

He had in his hand a heavy cane, with which he was trifling; but he answered never a word, and seemed to listen with an ill-contained impatience. And then all of a sudden he broke out in a great flame of anger, stamping with his foot, brandishing the cane, and carrying on (as the maid described it) like a madman. The old gentleman took a step back, with the air of one very much surprised and a trifle hurt; and at that Mr. Hyde broke out of all bounds and clubbed him to the earth. And next moment, with ape-like fury, he was trampling his victim under foot and hailing down a storm of blows, under which the bones were audibly shattered and the body jumped upon the roadway. At the horror of these sights and sounds, the maid fainted.


 

Things to look out for include (but are not restriced to):

You could try annotating the text first, and then writing up a short analysis of your findings. Remember to use grammatical terminology where appropriate, and support your ideas with evidence from the text.

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