Common Core Standards: ELA
RL.9-10.3. Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.
Real people often have conflicting motivations, which pull a person in two directions. For instance: Sure, it’d be great to go to prom with the captain of the football team - but are you doing it because he’s an awesome person, or to get back at a former friend who has a crush on him? And is it more important to be seen on the arm of the most popular person in school, or to go to prom with the person you’re really in love with even though nobody would look twice in that geek’s direction?
Some literary characters also have multiple or conflicting motivations. The ones who do are by far the most interesting and are in the best stories. The third Common Core Standard for Literature challenges readers to figure out how characters are thinking and feeling - what they want, what they’re afraid of, and what they won’t admit even to themselves.
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Using this Standard
- 1984 Teacher Pass
- A Raisin in the Sun Teacher Pass
- A Rose For Emily Teacher Pass
- A View from the Bridge Teacher Pass
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Teacher Pass
- Animal Farm Teacher Pass
- Antigone Teacher Pass
- Beowulf Teacher Pass
- Brave New World Teacher Pass
- Death of a Salesman Teacher Pass
- Fahrenheit 451 Teacher Pass
- Fences Teacher Pass
- Frankenstein Teacher Pass
- Grapes Of Wrath Teacher Pass
- Great Expectations Teacher Pass
- Hamlet Teacher Pass
- Heart of Darkness Teacher Pass
- Julius Caesar Teacher Pass
- King Lear Teacher Pass
- Lord of the Flies Teacher Pass
- Macbeth Teacher Pass
- Moby Dick Teacher Pass
- Narrative of Frederick Douglass Teacher Pass
- Oedipus the King Teacher Pass
- Of Mice and Men Teacher Pass
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Teacher Pass
- Othello Teacher Pass
- Romeo and Juliet Teacher Pass
- Sula Teacher Pass
- The Aeneid Teacher Pass
- The As I Lay Dying Teacher Pass
- The Bluest Eye Teacher Pass
- The Canterbury Tales General Prologue Teacher Pass
- The Canterbury Tales: The Miller's Tale Teacher Pass
- The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Prologue Teacher Pass
- The Cask of Amontillado Teacher Pass
- The Catch-22 Teacher Pass
- The Catcher in the Rye Teacher Pass
- The Crucible Teacher Pass
- The Great Gatsby Teacher Pass
- The House on Mango Street Teacher Pass
- The Iliad Teacher Pass
- The Lottery Teacher Pass
- The Metamorphosis Teacher Pass
- The Odyssey Teacher Pass
- The Scarlet Letter Teacher Pass
- The Tell-Tale Heart Teacher Pass
- Their Eyes Were Watching God Teacher Pass
- Things Fall Apart Teacher Pass
- To Kill a Mockingbird Teacher Pass
- Twilight Teacher Pass
- Wide Sargasso Sea Teacher Pass
- Wuthering Heights Teacher Pass
Sample Activities For Use in Class
1. Tense Texts: Creating Characters Who Feel Two Ways at Once
Make up three batches of index cards. Two batches should contain about ten cards, and the third should contain about twenty. On one of the two batches of ten cards, list general phrases describing a person, such as “a 16-year-old soccer player,” “a doctor and mother of two,” or “a superstitious mail carrier.” On the second batch of ten cards, list simple settings, such as “a neighbor’s garage sale,” “a home office,” or “a supermarket on Thanksgiving.” On the batch of twenty cards, list emotions or motivations, such as “scared,” “wants to be famous,” “wants to escape the current setting at all costs,” or “scared of strangers.”
Split students into groups and have each group draw one card from each of the stacks of ten cards and two cards from the stack of twenty. (That’s a total of four cards - one person, one setting, and two emotions or motivations). Give students 20-30 minutes to create a short story or skit in their groups that shows the person, in the setting, dealing with both emotions or motivations at the same time. If the students can resolve their character’s conflicting motivations in the story or skit, they may, but it’s not necessary.
Once time is up, reconvene the class and have each group share its story or skit. The rest of the class should watch/listen, then discuss who the character appears to be, what his or her motivations are, and how the audience can tell. Students in the audience should feel free to suggest dialogue or plot twists that would reveal the character’s emotions or motivations more quickly.
Students should focus on “showing” as much as possible, so you may want to prohibit them from repeating the specific phrases on the cards. For instance, instead of saying “Dr. Smith was a doctor and mother of two, who is sitting in her home office trying to figure out how to become famous while also being afraid of strangers,” students might write, “Dr. Smith gazed hopelessly at the photographs of her young son and daughter that sat on her desk. Today, she had tried, for the seventeenth time, to give a talk show interview about the importance of eating well, which was a topic she was well-known for studying, thanks to her two best-selling books. Unfortunately, television fame had escaped her grasp again when, terrified of a talk show host she had never met before, her mind went completely blank.”
2. Character Development in Texts
Have students read the following poem by E.A. Robinson (or one similar to it):
Withal a meagre man was Aaron Stark, --
Cursed and unkempt, shrewd, shrivelled, and morose.
A miser was he, with a miser's nose,
And eyes like little dollars in the dark.
His thin, pinched mouth was nothing but a mark;
And when he spoke there came like sullen blows
Through scattered fangs a few snarled words and close,
As if a cur were chary of its bark.
Glad for the murmur of his hard renown,
Year after year he shambled through the town, --
A loveless exile moving with a staff;
And oftentimes there crept into his ears
A sound of alien pity, touched with tears, --
And then (and only then) did Aaron laugh.
- Edward Arlington Robinson, “Aaron Stark”
Then, in whatever format you choose (groups, class discussion, worksheet, essay, etc.), have students discuss questions like the following:
-What sort of person is Aaron Stark? (Possible Answers: He’s a mean old man who’s secretly proud of his callousness and possible cruelty, as well as his “miserly” ways. He’s spent many years developing this reputation.)
-What clues in the text point to these qualities about Aaron Stark? (Possible Answers: He’s described as “Cursed and unkempt, shrewd, shrivelled, and morose,” he’s described as a “miser,” he snarls at people when they ask him questions instead of answering politely, and he laughs when he hears other people crying.)
When the poem describes Aaron Stark as a “miser,” does it mean only that he’s tight with money, or does it mean he’s “miserly” in some other ways? (Possible Answers: His snarling, clipped responses and laughter when someone else is crying indicate he’s also, perhaps chiefly, “miserly” with his time and attention to other people and with his compassion for them.)
Does Aaron Stark appear to have any conflicting motivations, and if so, what are they? (Possible Answers: The poem doesn’t really say, but it’s possible to picture Aaron Stark as someone who became “shrivelled” mentally and emotionally due to some past incident when he was deeply hurt - perhaps he would not laugh at other people’s tears if he wasn’t secretly grateful they were suffering like he once had.)
Quiz 1 QuestionsHere's an example of a quiz that could be used to test this standard.
Quiz 2 QuestionsHere's an example of a quiz that could be used to test this standard.
Questions 1-10 are based on the following excerpt:
I. "Terence, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can't be much amiss, 'tis clear,
to see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,
It gives a chap the belly-ache.
The cow, the old cow, she is dead;
It sleeps well, the horned head:
We poor lads, 'tis our turn now
To hear such tunes as killed the cow.
Pretty friendship 'tis to rhyme
Your friends to death before their time
Moping melancholy mad:
Come, pipe a tune to dance to, lad."
II. "Why, if 'tis dancing you would be,
There's brisker pipes than poetry.
Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man.
Ale, man, ale's the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:
Look into the pewter pot
To see the world as the world's not.
And faith, 'tis pleasant till 'tis past:
The mischief is that 'twill not last.....”
- A. E. Housman, “Terence, This is Stupid Stuff”