Literary Analysis Blog Blast Day #3: Character Analysis Writing Workshop

On Wednesday, I shared the rationale for analysis workshops centered on different analytical techniques, and I shared one technique-based analysis study in which students analyzed two texts side-by-side. Today, I want to share another technique-based analysis study with you — this time, a character analysis.

The Assignment

Without choice, there really is no writing workshop, so, for this writing study, my students had choice about which character in which piece of literature they wished to analyze. They could interpret this charge anyway they chose — broadly or narrowly — writing about a clearly defined protagonist, a secondary character, or even something far more abstract that they defined as acting like a character in the text.

The Mentor Texts

Since my students have been chirping about the new Netflix original series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, I pulled three different character analyses about this show.

  1. Why It’s So Hard for Us to Agree About Dong from ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ (NPR) — This text looks at Dong, a secondary character from the series, and weighs his role against ideas about conventional Asian stereotypes.
  2. Candy Girl (The New Yorker) — This piece analyzes Kimmy, the protagonist, against the broader themes of the show. While it seems like the most conventional piece, this was probably the most sophisticated mentor text in the cluster because of the quality of the writing and the breadth of the argument.
  3. ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ Takes on New York City (The Washington Post) — This mentor text considers New York City as a character in the series.

Since I was using these with seniors, I gave them entire articles and allowed them to wrestle with the messiness of translating the ideas and inspiration into their own pieces of writing.

Each of these mentor texts — while analyzing a single character — operated from a very different premise. For this reason, students selected a touchstone text, one of the mentor texts which would serve as their primary source of inspiration for this paper. Students with the same touchstone texts became writing feedback groups,  periodically offering insight on each other’s work throughout the study.

After students worked for a few days, I added a mini-mentor texts for those students who were writing about non-human characters. Many of them were struggling to explain how their “character” functioned as a character in the text. This excerpt of an A.V. Club review of the show Bloodline was helpful :

The past is immensely important to every single episode of Bloodline, almost acting like a character itself, manifesting in physical form through visions and memories. Present-day Sally watches her past self pack her bags in the same room with her. A young Danny sits in the back of present-day John’s car. An adult Sarah Rayburn lingers around Danny. But as formative as the past is for Bloodline’s characters, the way the show reveals things slowly over time made the future just as important to the narrative. Characters’ choices and feelings became more cogent in hindsight. That’s true of most well plotted out serialized dramas, but Bloodline has been particularly withholding with its characters’ motives.

The Lessons:

Day Lesson Mentor Texts Used
1 Gathering our noticings — what do writers do when they analyze a character? #1- #3
2 Anatomy of a Touchstone Text — what are the internal parts and pieces of the text and how do they work together? Each student worked with a group on their selected touchstone text
3 Allusions — how writers make reference to other texts in order to help the reader understand their point. #1 – #3
4 Evidence — writers use many different kinds of evidence to support their claim (not just direct textual quotes) #1 – #3
5 Transitions — writers use different techniques to transition between ideas #1 – #3
6 Commas — a mini-lesson by request of my students. #1 – #3

In this study, students did more work individually and in small groups than they did in their previous writing study. In many cases their ideas and methods were so firmly rooted in their touchstone texts that it made more sense for them to work independently rather than as a whole-class. I rotated around to their different small groups as they worked, and I conferred with them as they drafted.

The Outcomes

Here are two awesome papers to come out of this study. The first, from Madelyn:

In Glengarry Glen Ross, we first meet John Williamson in a restaurant booth with Shelly Levene, one of the real estate salesmen in the office where they both work. As the office manager, Williamson is the person Levene has come to to beg for more “leads”–contact information for people interested in purchasing real estate. Though Levene practically gets down on his knees and begs for leads, Williamson throughout the scene remains unmoved–even as Levene begins to actively insult him.

Glengarry Glen Ross is one of the best known plays in the last century of American theater, produced on Broadway on in 1984 and later revived in 2005 and 2012. Playwright David Mamet penned the script in 1983 and it subsequently received the Laurence Olivier Award and the 1984 Pulitzer Prize among other accolades. The drama follows several salesmen in a cutthroat New York real estate office as they struggle for success and dominance on the sales board. The character of John Williamson has been played by several different actors, but when the play was made into a movie the role was taken over by actor Kevin Spacey.

John Williamson is the only major character in the drama who is not himself an active salesman; instead, he manages the the leads and office sales and acts as a direct subordinate of the office owners, Mitch and Murray. Levene and others deride him for being a “fairy”, a “child”, and a “company man”, further implying that that his position in the office is far less difficult than their own: “I’m busting my balls, sell you dirt to fucking deadbeats money in the mattress, I come back you can’t even manage to keep the contracts safe, I have to go back and close them again.” The other characters perceive Williamson as lacking in masculinity–indecisive, incapable, and ignorant. He can’t even properly manage the office while they go out and do all of the legwork–much of the drama’s action revolves around the theft of estate contracts from the office. Though Williamson claims to be limited in his actions by his position, Levene and the other salesman perceive this as weakness.

Though the character Williamson has been portrayed by a variety of actors, Spacey’s interpretation is by far the most widely known if only because the film has been viewed by more people than any individual performance of the play. As a highly regarded actor this role is one of several for which Spacey is famous; interestingly enough, however, a character that he plays in one of the films that catapulted him to stardom closely parallels Williamson in comportment and personality.

We are introduced to Verbal Kint of The Usual Suspects in the early scenes of the film, as his interrogation by FBI Agent Kujan commences. As one of only two survivors of a firefight aboard a boat, Kint is being offered a deal: immunity from prosecution in exchange for a full account of events and a testimony against his now-dead criminal partners. Throughout the interrogation he presents himself as a victim, easily influenced and indecisive; due to cerebral palsy he has a limp and a paralyzed left hand, and these elements combine to make him appear both physically weak and weak in personality.

Both surface and deeper explorations of the characters turn up numerous comparisons between the two. Both at the outset appear weak, submissive, and unassuming–essentially, they are doormat characters, victims on the altar of the other characters’ actions and machinations. Though occasionally both reveal hints to the contrary, it isn’t until the end of the movie or the play that we as the viewers learn that they each had a self-serving agenda all along.

Throughout the entirety of Glengarry Glen Ross, Levene, Roma, and others degrade Williamson for his perceived lack of masculinity or street smarts, and his constant deferral to their bosses. Williamson continually insists that he is only doing his job and following the instructions he’s been given: “Let me tell you something, Shelly. I do what I’m hired to do . . . I’m hired to watch the leads. I’m given . . . hold on, I’m given a policy. My job is to do that. What I’m told. That’s it.”

In an interesting similarity, this also closely parallels Kint’s claims that any criminal activity that he partook in was on the instructions of one of his partners in crime, Keaton. He several times remarks upon the incongruity of his own presence: “It didn’t make sense that I’d be there–I mean, these guys were hardcore hijackers.” He writes this into his testimony for Agent Kujan, implying that he considers himself a lesser degree of criminal than the other men with him. As the interrogation continues, Kujan comes to believe that Keaton is the mastermind behind the whole plan, and that he had manipulated Kint into playing into his hands. As he reveals this to Verbal, Verbal begins to sob: “Why me? . . . I’m stupid, I’m a cripple, why me?” Kujan replies: “Because you’re stupid, you’re a cripple, you’re weaker than them,” affirming Kint’s assessment of himself as an easily influenced. Like Williamson, Kint describes himself as weak, laying the responsibility for his actions at other’s feet.

**SPOILERS**

However, both characters are ultimately unfazed by the crap they take for being weak–it’s all a part of their wider plan. As the action closes in Glengarry Glen Ross, Williamson reveals that he has purposefully screwed over both Roma and Levene, ruining the deal with one of Roma’s prospective clients and serving up Levene with a double whammy: not only is Levene going to prison for staging a robbery of the office, but his first successful clients in months are actually completely broke dead ends.

Similarly, in The Usual Suspects, (spoiler alert) Kint is revealed to have made up the entire story of the movie, as he was the mastermind of the plan all along. He spins his story slyly around random names and papers he sees around Kujan’s office, all the while putting up somewhat helpless and dull-witted front. He needs Kujan to dismiss him as unthreatening, and so he acts the part.

Both Kint and Williamson project submissive personalities to make themselves appear weak and helpless, while in fact they subtly manipulate the people around them to get what they want. Williamson tricks Levene into admitting his guilt about the office by lying in front of all of the salesmen and letting Leven call him out. He then responds: “Well, I’m saying this Shel: usually I take the contracts to the bank. Last night I didn’t. How did you know that? One night in a year I left a contract on my desk. Nobody knew that but you.” He had up until this moment allowed Levene to dismiss him as incompetent and useless, and as a result Leven had underestimated his cunning and walked right into his trap. In The Usual Suspects, Kint uses Kujan’s own bias against Keaton against him, redirecting suspicion off of himself by telling Kujan what he wants to hear. He paints a picture of Keaton as the manipulator, using names and objects he sees around the office to add detail to his story. He subsequently walks out of the office scot free, leaving Kujan behind in his office to realized he’s been played moments too late.

Though a surface examination of John Williamson and Verbal Kint reveals little in common aside from the actor playing them, both ultimately prove to be the characters that come out truly on top. Both are the proverbial snakes in the garden–they hide in plain sight until it’s too late.

The second, from Madison (who reports wanting to add journalism as a double-major at college next year as a result of having studied current, engaging mentor texts):

Two women sit in a parlor sipping tea as a record plays softly in the background. The younger woman’s face is a flustered shade of red as she turns to face Lizzie, the older, and begins to speak: “I’ll tell you what I think… I think… that you’re aware there is a certain fascination in the ambiguity. […] Did Lizzie Borden take an axe? …If you didn’t I should be disappointed… and if you did I should be horrified.”

While this paints an instantly horrific portrait of the Actress as someone who would be “disappointed” by the lack of the presence of a murderer, it is the coolness of Lizzie’s response which causes you to dismiss her as crazy. Lizzie sincerely asks “And which is worse?” — displaying very early in Blood Relations that she views the “murder [of] one’s parents” and being “a pretentious small-town spinster” to be equal in shame.

It would be so easy to just call Lizzie Borden “crazy” and put her actions off in a separate world where you know you would never belong — to describe her as something other than what you are. Yet, after a closer reading, we see that Lizzie is more human than we initially realize and that she viewed herself as trapped and her crime as the only possible escape from an overwhelmingly oppressive societal construct.

As the plot of the play is centered around death, it is not unexpected that Blood Relations deals with many difficult issues. And when it comes to the days leading up to the alleged double murder of her father and stepmother, we are asked to consider a very controversial question:

Is murder ever justified?

And while the nature of the play makes it very easy to assume that Lizzie did, in fact, commit a very horrific crime, she is presented in such a way that we are able to step inside her mind and see the world from her point of view — if only for a brief moment.

After all, Lizzie has many moments in which it is very easy to sympathize with her: her father is about to transfer the ownership of the farm away from her immediate family, and all of her hopes of growing old on the farm are crushed. After a heart-wrenching climax of the first act, Lizzie responds to her own father taking an axe to one of the few things that she holds dear, things that she loves like her own children: “He killed my birds! He took the axe and he killed them! Emma, I ran out and held them in my hands, I felt their hearts throbbing and pumping and the blood gushed out of their necks, it was all over my hands, don’t you care about that?”

The event was obviously a very traumatic experience for Lizzie. She “held them in [her] hands” as they slowly bled to death like she would if they were her own children — holding them because she was helpless to stop the “gushing” pain. Not only did she care so tremendously for her birds, she felt so alone in her heartbreak. She knows that no one cares as she does, yet that final hope that she is not alone pushes through as she calls out “don’t you care…?”

While this may not be reason enough for most people to justify murder, in the mind of someone so convinced of her own helplessness — a feeling of being horribly trapped — it is just enough to force her over the edge.

And when it comes to being forced over the edge, Lizzie is not alone. Murderers have found a place in theatre and on the big screen for ages and are often met with mixed reception. For most of us, the scariest are those who we can imagine as someone like us — someone who we could easily become. In the classic horror film The Shining, we are confronted with a seemingly ordinary man who, through months of being cut off from the rest of the world, calmly decides to murder his wife and child — not unlike Lizzie’s own crime.

For both, the feeling of isolation causes a strange mentality where he or she will do anything to break the confines. Both feel “caught in a dimension other than one in which the people around [them] are operating… simple acts seem filled with significance.” The isolation of a different “dimension” forces each character to act in extremes — eventually leading to the decision to murder their respective families.

But yet, do even these extreme feelings of isolation mitigate Lizzie’s culpability for the murders? It is easy to sympathize with her sense of being trapped in a “bell-jar,” helpless. In our mass-media society where crime is sensationalized, we like to think of these stories as something that would never — could never — happen to us. It is the only way that we can feel safe; however, in extreme circumstances, would we not, too, succumb to the terrible impulses? Would we destroy the ones we love as the only way to preserve ourselves?

I hope I never have to find out.

Lovely pieces of writing like the ones above are a great reward for both teacher and student at the end of a writing study. But maybe even more rewarding is a note like this from a student who struggles a bit more with her writing:

Dear Mrs. O’Dell,

This paper helped me discover my love of writing once again. It was so fun to write! After I wrote my flash draft and met with my group, I really knew where I wanted to go with my paper. I found a mentor text that was directly related to Fences and that along with the ‘Dong’ mentor text really gave me a great outline of where I was going. As you read my paper I would like you to notice my use of colons and the way in which I really tried to make the quotes speak to one another, however, I did use more quotes than usual so I hope this pays off.

In terms of structure for the paper I really took advantage of the short paragraphs, sometimes having one sentence or two word paragraphs which I had previously thought was a big no-no.

But I embraced it.

Oddly enough, the pressure of not having the nagging rule that a paragraph must be five to seven sentences frees me. This is definitely my favorite way to write.

Thanks for introducing it.

On Monday, we will continue our trek through literary analysis writing workshops as we look at a different kind of writing study — one based on the literature being read in class, with the author himself serving as mentor.

As we continue talking about the merging of literary analysis and writing workshop, what questions are popping up for you? What are you still wondering about? Comment below or find us on Twitter @rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett.

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3 thoughts on “Literary Analysis Blog Blast Day #3: Character Analysis Writing Workshop

  1. I am loving your website and ideas. Thank you so much for providing them! I am trying to tackle teaching literary analysis to 9th grade students. Do you have some mentor text ideas for teaching a less advanced student? Some you provided are workable but I’m worried about them falling into a rabbit hole of their opinion of the book, in other words saying things about how they were entertained, etc.

    • Hi, Emma. Thanks for reading! I teach 9th grade, too! Last year with Grade 9, I used mentor texts from NPR’s series IN CHARACTER (amazing, short character analysis) and The Atlantic’s series BY HEART (close reading, passage analysis … a bit of a larger challenge). These worked well.

      To help students avoid rabbit holes, have them make lists of what they notice about how the writers put these pieces together. They will see that there aren’t unsubstantiated opinions. If students do walk down that road, redirect them to the mentor texts: “Where do you see the mentor writers doing X?” They will see that they don’t.

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