Guest post co-written by W.O.R.D. Ink team members, Gannon Daniels & Vanessa Ziff Lasdon
In the first two installments of this WRITE-themed blog post series on literary response essay techniques (Part 1; Part 2), we addressed 5 of the elements of fiction that our acronym, PSSST, CoMe IN! represents: Narration, Plot, Setting, Style and Mood.
In this final post we’ll survey the most important element of fiction, CHARACTER, followed by 3 final elements that are a bit trickier to grasp at first, yet no less commonly addressed in essays: Symbolism, Irony, and Theme.
PSSST! CoMe IN and explore with us!
All literature centers on human nature, and if the subject isn’t “man,” then the story is about man’s relationship to the subject or how man interprets it. We are a self-possessed society and culture. But literature helps us through our inevitable foibles, wounds, and range of affects; it documents our travesties and shows us how we can change ourselves for the better. In the most resonant stories (the ones we love best, the ones that last longest), the writer has shaped the character and the plot like puzzle pieces which fit together with a precision you don’t see in real life, skillfully calibrated to force the character into actions that will reveal her humanity and help her live to her deepest and fullest.
We begin the journey through a story with Character Analysis. There are a number of ways to organize and interpret character. I like to use the graphic organizer we’ve included in this blog post titled Fact-Inference-Symbolism (available for download on our Scribd account), made of two simple columns. FACT represents all things within the story. Direct quotes can easily prove that a fact exists in a story, and these quotes can later serve as evidence to support your essay’s particular claim(s). If a character has acted with great assertion for many pages on end (say, he ran away from home), you would simply list their action (“ran away from home”) within the FACT column and provide page or line numbers for future reference. In the inference column, we write a logical reason for or consequence of that behavior. The character analyst (aka, the essay writer) interprets, or infers, the character’s behavior and then labels it. For instance, the character was unhappy or fearful (so he ran away); the character is lonely now (because he ran away); and so on.
Unhappiness, Fear, and Loneliness are abstract ideas, but these ideas have been represented in a concrete way within the story through character action. Students should think long and hard about the INFERENCE column, about the true motivation and results of the character’s action, and then write as many logical ideas down as possible. In this way, the student is reflecting on how Character acts on Plot and how Plot circles back to act on and reshape Character.
We draw conclusions about actions all the time. In my classroom, I ask my students to watch me walk across the room. I tell them “I’m going to be a 13 year old boy.” I have:
- my hands in my pockets
- my head hanging low
- my feet shuffling and dragging slowly
- I say, “I’m walking home from school alone.”
Then the class interprets my BEHAVIOR and DIALOGUE, which two forms of character action. They say things like:
- He’s lonely.
- He’s sad.
- He’s the new kid and he just moved to that neighborhood.
- He’s an outcast.
- His best friend died.
- He’s depressed.
- His parents took away his cell phone.
All of these interpretations are INFERENCES. But are they plausible as well? The abstract observations (sad, lonely, depressed) seem to be plausible labels. Yet, the other suggestions may or may not be true and, therefore, aren’t completely plausible. We do not know for a fact that the person I became is a new kid in the neighborhood or that his best friend has died. We cannot suppose or conjure facts to a story that is yet unfamiliar to us. Again, think carefully about what facts and inferences you choose to include in each column, and note that feelings, emotions and psychological labels are abstract and, therefore, inferences.
More Fun with Abstractions: Symbolism
Symbols in our everyday world represent ideas larger than the symbols themselves. Take a wedding band, worn on the “wedding finger,” the fourth digit on the left hand. This infinite ring represents marriage, a promise of unity. Marriage is an abstract concept made real within a time-honored and concrete symbol. For one it may represent children; for another, loyalty. A symbol grows in power when it brings layers of meaning (in this case even religious, political, societal and cultural value) to many different people.
In literature, how do we spot symbolism? One could go crazy citing every object a character picks up or engages with as symbolic. Here are three foolproof steps to finding the essential symbolic elements in fiction.
- Anything prominent, up front and first in a story. The title is the most important for symbolic scrutiny and then the first paragraph, first page or two, or first chapter.
- Anything that is explained thoroughly or given lots of detail is most likely symbolic.
- Anything that is repeated again and again, used by the main character more than once, or is part of an obsession.
If any of these rules fit, then you’ve discovered a symbolic element of said fiction. What these elements symbolize or infer is the million-dollar question. Some objects are clichés and, hence, overly predictable: a heart for love, a ring for marriage. In the best literature, symbols are unexpected and unique to the character, yet utterly logical and precisely chosen by the writer to evoke multiple layers of meaning.
To kill two birds with one stone (speaking of clichés), I am going to include a lesson about IRONY while giving an example of SYMBOLISM.
In the simplest of terms, Irony is the opposite of what one expects. Not all stories render ironic turns of events, but it’s important to address Irony because what one assumes will happen and what actually happens within a story is often significant in relation to Symbolism, Character and Theme. For example, in the short story “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver, the narrator is irritated that a blind friend of his wife’s is coming for dinner. We expect the narrator to be ornery and disengaged, but in fact he enjoys the blind man’s company. So much so, that he draws a cathedral for him at the end to help the blind man get a sense of the magnitude of such a grand design. Irony enhances the connection between character behavior, symbolism and theme.
The narrator displays ironic behavior: he opens up to the blind man and is enlightened by their conversation. Thus, the symbolism of a cathedral (a place of workshop and enlightenment), and even of the blind man himself, gathers traction and meaning. Conversely, the connection between character behavior and symbolism enhances the power of the irony and the message it reveals. We realize that the blind man was always enlightened (seeing) and that the narrator becomes enlightened; therefore, he was figuratively blind before meeting his new friend. Hats off to Raymond Carver. That’s a lot of good stuff for students to discover!
Side Note: Remember our allusion to character and plot fitting together with puzzle-piece precision? The same holds true for every literary element the writer incorporates into his story. Perhaps the setting is what’s symbolic, or maybe the Mood. Never is anything random in fiction. Often students will say to me: It’s just a man hanging out with a man, or, it’s just a dinner with friends. Then I remind them that, unlike real life, where random things can happen for no good reason, a human being (a WRITER) thoughtfully penned this piece and not one detail is random. Not one. Ever.
Now for the finale…
when everything comes together…
The THEME is an overall notion related to our lives and it is always linked to the main character’s experience. Through a character’s behavior and experience, an author hopes to enlighten readers about… life. Never in literature (at least not the high-quality stuff) will an author bang the reader over the head with a statement about the theme. It’s not a fact you’ll find on a particular page. The author’s point of view on a theme will be experienced through the character’s decisions, and most strongly at the crossroads, or climax of a story, when the plot forces her to go one way or the other (which says a great deal about the character, and the underlying THEME.)
Students often experience fear and loathing when it comes to Theme – or any literary element, for that matter — because they have in their minds that there is one right answer and they don’t know it. When we allow the RIGHT/WRONG quotient in, then we are doomed.
Professors of masters and PhD programs welcome fresh interpretations on a story’s elements. Yet, in junior high, high school and college, often English instructors feel compelled to TELL students What’s So, perhaps to save everyone the time and grief of trying to pin things down, but inevitably doing a disservice to their students’ critical and creative thinking skills. The truth is, everyone is invited into a story; anyone can interpret its elements, whether innovative or in line with the majority. As long as you can prove your ideas with facts (see inference hand-out), you can label inferences of character behavior and symbolism with whatever you see as true. And theme is your choice as well, since it’s about how you approach your topic and execute your writing. Theme links your reading and reflection experience to the outside world. Trust in your work and your instincts to voice what it is inside you that a story has inspired.
“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald
PSSST, CoMe IN! provides you (student, parent, teacher) an invitation into the world of literature with a simple, succinct method of writing about the most common literary elements explored in English essays. Using this knowledge, launch into character analysis using the inference worksheet found in this installment. Story is all about character! Then, find a story’s symbols and meanings using the hard and fast rules outlined. Survey the whole of your literary elements to discover Theme.
Remember: there is no one right answer – stories belong to everyone.
Simply start at the beginning and follow the whisper.
PSSST, CoMe IN!
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