Building characters

Analysing the language of characters in a literary text


  • Understand some of the ways that writers use language to create characters
  • Analyse the use of language in a literary text

Lesson Plan

  • You could start by asking students to think about some of the ways that writers use language to create fictional characters. What makes a convincing character? What are some of their favourite characters from fiction, and why?
  • Next, talk students through the first passage from Jekyll & Hyde. Model what good stylistic analysis looks like: a focus on meanings and effects with close reference to the linguistic and grammatical patterns of the text.
  • This is also a good opportunity to refresh knowledge of nouns, adjectives, modifiers and syntax.
  • Next, provide your students with a copy of the next extract. Working in pairs, students should think about how language is used to create the character of Mr. Hyde. Once again, they should provide linguistic evidence and examples for their interpretations, using terminology where they can.
  • This could then be written up into a short analytical passage.

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:

  • Adjectivespale, dwarfish, displeasing, murderous, husky, whispering, broken

What is the role of the nouns in this regard?

  • Nounsdeformity, malformation, timidity, boldness

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:

  • Mr. Hyde was pale and dwarfish
  • he gave an impression of deformity
  • he had a displeasing smile
  • he had borne himself to the lawyer with a sort of murderous mixture
  • he spoke with a husky, whispering [...] voice

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?

  • One idea might be that because Hyde always appears as the subject, he becomes the focus of our attention. Stevenson might want to draw our attention to Hyde as an important character, and highlight the apparent strangeness of his appearance and behaviour. You could discuss further reasons for this as a class.

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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