Using Fictional Characters to Help Students Fall in Love with Reading

Introduction | Background Knowledge | Activities | Extensions | Standards

Characters Illustration


Name one of your favorite book characters. This was probably an easy task, with the challenge being having to choose only one. Readers fall in love with book characters. Many readers still remember their first time reading that Charlotte died in Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White. Many fondly remember laughing along with George’s antics in Curious George by H. A. Rey, or more recently Gerald and Piggie in Mo Willems’s Elephant and Piggie series. How many readers wanted to solve mysteries with Frank and Joe Hardy or longed to be a member of the Baby-sitters Club?

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Kid reading

Background Knowledge

Characters are an essential element of the fictional story. Through a book’s characters, readers learn good versus evil and can see themselves or whom they would like to be. Characters drive the stories - from their traits to their actions, from their feelings to how they change throughout the book. Readers connect to the characters, which is why so many book series are popular. For example, the Harry Potter series would not be popular without Harry, the boy who lived.

At a basic level, students need to be able to identify the characters in a fictional story. Who are the main characters or the most important characters? Who are the minor characters? How do they fit into the story? Once students can identify the characters, it is time to dig a little deeper and begin to analyze characters. Excellent readers do this intuitively - they question motives, consider actions, and try to make sense of how a character changes and why. Most readers need to be led down this path, but once they are taught, it becomes second nature.

Elements of Character Analysis include:

  • Character Identification: telling who the characters are and how each relates to the others.
  • Physical Description: describing the characters if the author has provided a physical description.
  • Traits and Feelings: identifying and discussing a character's traits and feelings, using direct or indirect characterization.
  • Motives: discerning why a character does what he or she does.
  • Changes Throughout the Story: identifying and describing if and how a character changes throughout the story and why that change occurs.

We can analyze characters through

  • What the author says about them What the characters do and say (actions and reactions)
  • What other characters say and think about them

Characterization can be direct, where the author explicitly describes the character, or indirect, where the reader must make inferences.

Character studies and explicit instruction on character analysis can make students more active, engaged readers, contributing to helping them become successful readers.

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Selective List of Picture Books with Well-Developed Characters

Selective List of Chapter Books with Well-Developed Characters

Use a Series to Highlight Characters

Character Charades

  • Build excitement in the classroom with a game of Character Charades. Use this as an anticipatory set to the entire unit or an individual lesson, or a quick review at the end of a unit. Students choose a character’s name and act out that character without using words. The team or student who guesses the correct character gets a point. Use familiar literary characters or popular characters from TV shows or movies. During a discussion after the game, talk about how students knew how to act or how they knew which character to guess.

Character Selfies

  • Students can analyze character traits in this activity. Identify character traits and provide proof for each one. Add these statements around a photograph, drawing, or illustration of the character.
    • Technology Approach
      • Use Jamboard (TeachersFirst Review) to make this an interactive activity. The teacher posts a character picture in the middle of the Jamboard (add as an image or as a background) and students can use the sticky note feature to add character traits and proof.
      • Students can also use Google Slides (TeachersFirst Review) to create a presentation to highlight character traits using images or text.
    • Non-Technology Approach
      • Students can use graphic organizers to share information about character traits. These can be printed out and completed on paper. Students can create the character in the center of the page and add traits and proof in the bubbles around the edges.
      • Younger students can use facial expressions to visualize the character traits or draw pictures to describe how a character made them feel.

Character Journals

  • Students can expand their writing skills as they analyze characters by keeping a journal from a character’s point of view. What would Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games write in her journal? How about Mr. Terupt from Because of Mr. Terupt? How does Camilla Cream feel about her stripes in A Bad Case of Stripes?
    • Technology Approach
    • Non-Technology Approach
      • Print bullet journal pages for students to add more individuality to their journal entries. Encourage students to doodle, add quotes, moods, and worries in their character journals.

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Book character


  1. Rewrite the Story
    • Encourage students to take a favorite story or a read-aloud that has been shared with the class and rewrite it to change the main character as in The Three Little Wolves and the Big, Bad Pig. For example, in Hooway for Wodney Wat by Helen Lester, Wodney is a shy and quiet character. He is afraid of Camilla Capybara, and she is the antagonist in the story. How would the story be different if Wodney was strong and brave instead of timid? Students can tell this new story and share their writing with their classmates.
  2. Characters on Trial
    • Choose a character from a shared literacy experience, either a picture book or a novel, who is not considered a “good” character. Examine the character’s traits, actions, and motivations and then put those on trial. Students work together in small groups to support a position about the character, either for or against. The groups present their arguments to their classmates, who will serve as the jury. For example, in Restart by Gordon Korman, Chase falls off a roof and gets amnesia. Interactions with his peers show him that he was not a nice person prior to his injury. Students write and present their opinions on if Chase should get a second chance and if his classmates should forgive him. To go even further, students could defend their position if Chase has really changed. This activity allows a close look at the text, requires students to look for evidence to support their opinions, challenges students to practice expressing their opinions in writing, and encourages oral language development as students present, discuss, and defend their positions.
  3. A Fish Out of Water
    • What would happen if we took a character from one book and put him or her in another? How would Harry Potter be if he was in Charlotte’s Web? What would happen if Curious George went to play with Gerald and Piggie in Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books? Would the Very Hungry Caterpillar eat The Giving Tree? Facilitate a discussion about how a new, familiar character would impact a favorite story.
  4. Fakebook
    • Create a Facebook-style page for one of a story’s many characters using Fakebook (TeachersFirst review). Other characters’ pages can be set as “Friends” and posts can be added as the story progresses.

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  • AASL National School Library Standards
    • Inquire Shared Foundation, Think Domain - Learners display curiosity and initiative by: 1. Formulating questions about a personal interest or a curricular topic. 2. Recalling prior and background knowledge as context for new meaning
    • Include Shared Foundation, Share Domain - Learners exhibit empathy with and tolerance for diverse ideas by: 1. Engaging in informed conversation and active debate. 2. Contributing to discussions in which multiple viewpoints on a topic are expressed.
    • Explore Shared Foundation, Think Domain - Learners develop and satisfy personal curiosity by: 1. Reading widely and deeply in multiple formats and write and create for a variety of purposes
  • ISTE Standards for Students
    • Innovative Designer - 4d. Students exhibit a tolerance for ambiguity, perseverance and the capacity to work with open-ended problems.
    • Global Collaborator - 7b. Students use collaborative technologies to work with others, including peers, experts or community members, to examine issues and problems from multiple viewpoints.

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