AP Lit Skill Spotlight: Characterization in Prose

For no-prep resources to help you teach characterization, check out my lesson for sale on Teachers Pay Teachers.

Studying characters is easy when it’s a novel or full play. But asking students to study textual details for characterization, motive, and perspective can sometimes be difficult. This is especially true if the text is an excerpt or a short story. However, by practicing on short texts students learn how to read closely and make inferences. These skills will help with CHR 1.A and almost any other AP®* English Lit Essential Skill.

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Identifying Character Details With Epic Opening Scenes in Movies

Obviously, movies introduce characters in different ways than texts do. But even the most unusual movie openings tell us a great deal about main characters. Show these clips below and ask your students what you can learn about the main characters.

Example 1 – Baby Driver Opening Scene

Watch this clip from The Baby Driver to study Baby’s character.

In this opening scene, Baby waits in a car as his partners rob a bank. The setup leads us to believe Baby is cold and villainous as his partners appear, but once he’s alone he jams out to a song on the car radio like any other teenager would. Ansel Elgort downplays Baby’s character traits, but little details tell us about his character. Consider the way he watches the bank robbery with fear in his eyes, telling us he’s not really meant to be a criminal. Or notice how he never takes his headphones out, hinting at the issues he has with his hearing. Finally, the way Baby drives is calculated and unpredictable. Rather than leave a wake of destruction, he drives quickly and cleverly in order to get away.

Example 2 – The Social Network Opening Scene

Excerpt: 'The Social Network' - The New York Times
Watch this clip from The Social Network and study Mark Zuckerberg’s character details.

In the opening to The Social Network, we see how quickly Mark Zuckerburg (according to Jesse Eigenberg’s portrayal) speaks, talks, and judges. Analyze the way he maintains 3-4 different conversational paths at once. Consider the way he speaks to his girlfriend and pushes her away. Also, analyze the way he carries himself, how he dresses, and his body language to make inferences on the way he’s feeling about himself. This clip, above all else, is meant to demonstrate Mark’s brilliant mind, lack of self-confidence, and contrasting inflated ego.

Example 3 – Spiderman Homecoming, Peter’s Footage

Spider-Man Homecoming Final Trailer Breakdown
Start the clip at 5:00 to see the perspective from Peter’s point of view.

In Spiderman Homecoming, the film opens with a retelling from the previous movie, Captain America: Civil War. By using footage from Peter’s point of view, the movie’s tone becomes more juvenile and playful, rather than Captain’s perspective which would be serious. By examining how Peter talks and reacts to what’s happening we can glean that he is excited, grateful, definitely experienced, and above all a regular teenage kid. He reacts how almost any American kid would if he was also suddenly a superhero.

Focus Text: “The Open Window” by Saki

Saki’s “The Open Window” is weird but I love it. It seems boring and pointless, until you get to the last line and have a “wait, what?” moment? Fortunately, it’s short enough to read twice. Even better, there’s a brilliant short film version of the text, so you can both read and watch it inside one normal-length class period.

Studying Characterization With a Character Sketch

Download this free resource and pair it with any excerpt or short text to study character details!

To help with studying character details I created a character sketch worksheet, which allows students to keep track of direct and indirect character details. This worksheet aligns with questions from CHR 1.A in the AP Lit CED and is a free download from my TpT store. You can use this to study “The Open Window, but you can also use it with any short story or excerpted text.

When studying “The Open Window,” ask students to keep track of character details for Vera or Framton Nuttel. Chances are, they won’t get very much the first time through it (especially if they chose Vera). However, once they read the story through and learn that Vera is lying entire time, ask them to read it again. Or better yet, watch the short film version of the story instead of reading it a second time. Students should add to their character notes as they approach it a second time, using indirect characterization details and inferences to add to their observations.

Teacher’s Guide for “The Open Window”

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James Rogan’s 2004 short film The Open Doors is a great version of Saki’s “The Open Window.” I love showing it after reading the short story. And it’s only 12 minutes long!

When first studying “The Open Window,” Framton Nuttel emerges as the more interesting character. The story is told with insight into his nervous mind and we see that he’s dreading meeting new people. Although the experiences is quite mild, the text says, “To Framton it was all purely horrible.” At the appearance of the family, Framton bolts without another word. The film enhances Framton’s characterization by giving us a full scope of his awkward mannerisms, halting way of speaking, and shifty, uncomfortable looks about the room.

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Vera’s characterization is also subtle. She’s described as “a very self-possessed young lady of fifteen.” She talks continually to fill the silence of her aunt’s absence, but once you learn that she’s a liar her characterization gets more interesting. Vera notices Framton’s nervous disposition, knows that her uncle and cousins will be returning from the woods any moment, and decides to play a trick on him. Her realistic reaction in Framton’s presence tell us she’s a gifted actress and has likely done this before. Finally, her additional lie at the end of the story, explaining that Framton must have started at the sight of the dog, reveals her motive. “Romance at short notice was her specialty.” In this case, romance would mean adventure. Vera’s life is boring, so she creates excitement by playing these cruel tricks on the people in her life.

Suggested Texts for Studying Identification of Setting

This skill and the character sketch activity can be used with any excerpt or short story. It is also fun to choose more than one character and ask students to compare what they learned. Here is a list of suggested short stories or novels to excerpt for studying characterization. Thanks to the educators on the AP® Lit Facebook group for all of the great suggestions!

  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (excerpt)
  • “Saving Sourdi” by May-Lee Chai
  • “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin
  • “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell
  • “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker
  • “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros
  • “In the Region of Ice” by Joyce Carol Oates
  • “The Stone Boy” by Gina Berriault
  • “Miss Brill” or “The Garden Party” by Katherine Mansfield
  • “Miriam” by Truman Capote
  • “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant
  • “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor
  • “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl
  • “A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell
  • “Shaving” by Leslie Norris
  • “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes
  • “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • “Click Clack the Rattle Bag” by Neil Gaiman
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