My Life as an Alphabet: Exploring Narrative

3. Examining Characterisation

Suggested Learning Intentions

  • To identify literary techniques to develop characterisation
  • To experiment with those techniques to develop a believable character

Sample Success Criteria

  • I can infer a character’s feelings and personality when reading
  • I can experiment with first- and third-person narrative styles to develop characterisation
  • I can include description and dialogue to develop characterisation
  • A range of engaging reading material. For example, picture story books, short stories, selected extracts from novels, short films.
  • Inferring characters’ feelings graphic organiser: docx PDF 
  • Characterisation graphic organiser: docx PDF
  • Discussion round table template: docx PDF
  • Peer feedback template: docx PDF
  • Feedback tool - two stars and a wish: pptx PDF

In this stage of the sequence, students read a range of narrative texts to identify the techniques authors use to develop characterisation. They then record and discuss examples of characterisation with their peers before applying the observed techniques in their own writing.

Ensure that the students are familiar with the term characterisation (click on the 'C' to open the accordion to access the definition). Discuss and define the terms 'protagonist' and 'antagonist' and develop a list of familiar literary characters for each term. 

Present students with a range of short extracts, short stories, picture story books and/or short films to begin an exploration of characterisation. During shared, modelled and independent reading activities, encourage collaborative discussion of the techniques authors use to describe and infer character traits. 

Ask students to identify the narrator’s voice and tense used in each text. Discuss how each narrative style develops characterisation and influences the reader’s response to the text. 

Prompting questions to promote discussion:

  • How does a reader get to know and understand how a character thinks and feels?
  • How can the reader determine what motivates a character's actions?
  • What characteristics might protagonists and antagonists from different narratives have in common?

The short video, Narrative Character Types, could be shared to provide an overview of character points of view, types and how they are revealed. Log into ClickView using your Departmental credentials.

Enable student understanding of the terms protagonist and antagonist by reading a quality text with the students, then modelling a character summary. For example, The Widow’s Broom, by Chris van Allsburg, provides opportunities to explore how the author developed the central characters: 

  • Minna Shaw, a kind widow who enjoys the company of a discarded witch’s broom
  • the broom itself, which could be regarded as the main character or protagonist in the story. The broom’s character demonstrates how Van Allsburg invests an everyday object with intelligence and personality. 
  • the Spivey family, the suspicious antagonists of the story.

This text also invites analysis of the illustrative style used to create mood and develop characters.

Extend student understanding of the terms 'protagonist' and 'antagonist'.  Students can conduct an etymological investigation exploring the word origins and meanings. Etymonline is a useful etymological investigation tool. Discuss how authors can create narrative tension by developing characters with opposing views or aims. Students could develop protagonist and antagonist character profiles from familiar texts to share with the class.

Ask students to read selected passages from My Life as an Alphabet (or an alternative text) with a partner. After reading, encourage students to write their responses to some of the following questions and prompts, using the Claim, Support, Question protocol. Who is telling the story?  Note the pronouns and how they are used to establish the narrator’s voice.

  • Who is the protagonist in the story?
  • How is the protagonist revealed to you? 
  • How is language used to reveal the protagonist?
  • What are some of the things you have learned about the protagonist?
  • How does the author communicate the characters’ feelings?
  • Is the narrator using present or past tense?

Invite the partners to discuss their thinking and add additional supports and questions to their work. 

Ask students to find examples of the main character’s speech, thoughts and actions and suggest what they tell the reader about how the character is feeling.  Provide the graphic organiser, Inferring Characters’ Feelings, available in the Materials and texts section, to students to record and elaborate on examples from the text. Use this information to develop an open-minded character portrait

Enable students to find and interpret examples of characterisation by reading a passage from My Life as an Alphabet, or an alternative text, in a literature circle group. For example, the chapter; ‘P is for Picoult’, from My Life as an Alphabet

Extend student understanding of characterisation techniques and inference strategies by having students identify other characters in the text and discuss their interactions with the protagonist. Student discussion could be organised using the Save the Last Word for Me protocol. Each group member selects a discussion prompt and a significant passage that addresses a particular question. Question prompts include:

  • How do the other characters treat the protagonist?
  • How does the protagonist treat the other characters?
  • How might you describe the power relationship between the characters?
  • How might the characters and their actions affect each other? 
  • Empathise with each of the characters. How would you feel in their situation?

Evidence of student thinking and conversations could be recorded on a collaborative poster or following a discussion round table. A template is available in the Resources and texts section. Encourage students to support their thinking with evidence from the text.

Analyse a point of conflict in a narrative text. For example, ask the students to read chapter thirteen, ‘M is for Mourning’, from My Life as an Alphabet

Invite the students to summarise this chapter and suggest what the conflict reveals about the characters and how it might change the characters’ actions and thinking. 

Enable students to develop their understanding of characterisation by encouraging their participation in a literature circleclose reading group or reading conference.

Extend student understanding of plot development by supporting them to use a flow chart to summarise events in the story and character changes as they continue reading their selected text. 

Areas for further exploration

Explore how idiomatic expressions affects characterisation and the mood of a text. For example, the following quotes from My Life as an Alphabet could be discussed.

  • ‘Jen Marshall is not the sharpest tool in the shed.’ (p. 4)
  • ‘The receptionist glanced at the note and gave a look that said she thought I was one sandwich short of a picnic. Possibly an entire hamper.’  (p. 144)

Invite students to find more examples of idioms, discuss their meanings and experiment with their use.

Identify and record important quotes made by a character throughout the text. Use the Stick Figure Quotes to develop a character analysis.

1. Using Jonsberg’s style to create a character

Discuss how a character’s behaviours, feelings and speech add to the plot and theme of a narrative. 

Refer to the learning intention and success criteria of the stage. Explain that students will be using the style and techniques used in their reading to develop characterisation. Students could write from the viewpoint of a character from a familiar text or develop their own fictional character. 

Ask students to provide examples of some of the techniques used to develop characterisation. For example, first- or third-person narration, flashbacks, dialogue, inferred meaning from actions and thinking and description.  Encourage students to use one or more of these techniques in their writing. 

Writing stimuli include: 

  • a photograph
  • sentence starters
  • a line from a narrative text
  • a character’s reflection on an event from the text.

Conduct mini-lessons based on student learning needs to support writing. These could include:

  • Techniques for writing in first- and third-person. Ask students to write about the same event using both first- and third-person narrative. Ask them to reflect on how each style develops characterisation. 
  • Using dialogue to develop characterisation. Analyse how authors use dialogue in their writing and how the reader gets to know a character by what is said. Support students to develop short passages of dialogue that invite the reader to make inferences about who is speaking.
  • Vocabulary selection. Support students to develop word clines that suggest a range of emotions or opinions.  For example: he/she gave a welcoming smile, smiled radiantly, smiled broadly, smiled smugly, smiled cruelly.

Provide opportunities for students to receive peer feedback on their writing. Students could take turns presenting and providing feedback. A peer feedback template is available in the Resources and text section. 

A more open-ended feedback protocol could also be used, such as Two Stars and a Wish.

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, 2017. Peer Feedback. [Online] 
Available at:
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

ClickView, 2011. Narrative Character Types. [Online] 
Available at:
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

Dickens, C., 1837 - 39. Oliver Twist. Puffin Classic ed. London: Puffin Books.
Facing History and Ourselves, n.d. Resource Library, Teaching Strategies, Stick Figure Quotes. [Online] 
Available at:
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

Fisher, D. B. & Frey, N., 2013. Rigorous Reading. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.
Harmony Education Centre, n.d. Save the Last Word for Me. [Online] 
Available at:
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

Harper, D., 2020. Etymonline: Online etymology dictionary. [Online] 
Available at:
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2019. Project Zero: Claim, Support, Question. [Online] 
Available at:
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

Jonsberg, B., 2013. My Life as an Alphabet. Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin.

McDonald, L., 2018. A Literature Companion for Teachers. 2 ed. Marrickville: PETAA.

Ness, M., 2018. Think Big with Think Alouds. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.

Parkin, D. B. & Harper, D. H., 2019. Teaching with Intent 2: Literature-based literacy. Marrickville: PETAA.

Phillips, C., n.d. Literacy Toolbox: Open Mind Portrait. [Online] 
Available at:
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

Serravallo, J., 2015. The Reading Strategies Book. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

State Government of Victoria (Department of Education and Training), 2019. Literacy Teaching Toolkit. [Online] 
Available at:
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

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