Approaching a “character” question in an exam.

This post has come about after marking a series of mock IGCSE English Literature papers.  For many of the boys I teach and work with, there is a reluctance to really engage with the question and the writing is really as sequence of events from the play or novel which do not consider the nature of the choices made by writers when putting a character onto the page.

My checklist would be:

  • No word is an accident and every situation has been set out for a purpose in a particular way.
  • The question will expect you to address the purpose the author has in mind when writing the character
  • You must not treat the character as a real person
  • Consider how the character in question links to the key themes of the text being studied
  • Ensure my quotations are relevant and focused on the requirements of the question.
  • 10 minutes planning.

In this case the question, from an Edexcel IGCSE paper was:  What is the significance of the characters Calpurnia and Tom Robinson in TKAM?

For many, this was an excuse to spend a deal of time explaining who they were and digressing by listing both things they do during the novel and also expressing Scout’s feelings as though these are all real people.

I would argue that the first question you need to ask is : “what was Lee trying to achieve at certain points when she wrote this character?”  After this, I would begin to outline the moments in the book I wish to use in my writing and then ensure that I have the thematic ideas covered.  At this point, the (obvious) realization that both are from the Black community in the book should enable me to make a clear thematic link between the pair.

I continue this plan in the powerpoint below:

10 min plan character

Obviously, there are as many possible ways of answering this question as there are students ready to answer it.  However, I hope that whatever examples you choose to use, or whatever specific question you are answering on any text, you will take my advice to heart and present an essay which is focused on exploring the writer’s intentions when they created the character.  Essays which are glorified summaries of the text and the plot will not attain high marks.  It is as simple as that.  English Literature is about the exploration of what you believe the writer intended when choosing specific words or situations in the text.  It is not about the regurgitation of memorized plot-lines or unexplored quotations.