1.1 Interpreting the role of character in fiction

6 min readjanuary 25, 2023



AP English Literature 📚

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This is study guide 1 for Unit 1! In this guide, we’ll be going over something that seems relatively simple: characters and their importance.
“Isn’t that obvious though?” you’re probably thinking. “You obviously rely on characters to propel you through stories.” And in fact, you are correct! However, we’ll be building on that foundational knowledge you already have and elevate it to the AP-level. First, we’ll break down the components of a character—what makes them them. Then, let’s look at what characters do for the story as a whole and you, the reader. Lastly, we’ll explore character perspective in depth.
Alright, with that overview out of the way, let’s get into the content!

Spoiler alert: references to Shakespeare's play King Lear will be made in this guide.

Components of a Character

In this section, we’ll look at what makes up characters. How do we know what we know about them?
Think about your favorite fictional characters. For example, we’ll use Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series. When you think about her character, what personality traits and descriptors come to mind? You probably first think of her intelligence. When she’s first introduced, she is reading a very thick book and quickly proves her intelligence by correcting Harry and Ron’s incorrect assumption about the Hogwarts House points system. This is an example of description and dialogue shaping the reader's perception of a character.
As you read, you learn about characters and develop ideas of who they are. The main three forms of textual detail that compose characters are: description, dialogue, and behavior. There are others of course, but these three are the ones we’ll focus on.

1. Description

Description is the most straightforward way of learning about characters. It can give us insight into their physical appearance, personality traits, and even their motivations and beliefs. It can help us understand why they act the way that they do, and how they interact with the other characters in the story. This detail may come from the character themself, other characters, the narrator, or the speaker. By providing detailed descriptions of characters, an author can create vivid and memorable characters that readers can relate to and become invested in.

2. Dialogue

Dialogue reveals information about characters through the words that they use, their tone of voice, their body language, their attitude, their emotions, and the content of their conversation. Through dialogue, we can gain insight into a character's personality, values, motivations, and relationships with other characters. 
Note: it’s not just the dialogue of the character of interest that’s important. You should also consider the dialogue of other characters that interact with the character of interest. One example of dialogue revealing information about a character in the Shakespearean play King Lear is when Lear's Fool speaks to Lear in Act 1, Scene 4. For example, the Fool says to Lear, “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise”. This line reveals Lear's vanity and pride, as he believes that he is wise and that his age brings him wisdom. Additionally, it shows his lack of self-awareness, as he is not aware of his own foolishness and lack of wisdom. By using dialogue, the Fool has revealed important information about Lear's character.

3. Behavior

Lastly, behavior gives you insight on the character’s motives (especially whether their motives align with their actions), moral and ethical beliefs, background, social status, and attitude towards other characters.
For example, let’s look at King Lear again. Throughout the play, Edmund is portrayed as a deceitful and ambitious man. He manipulates his brother Edgar and his father Gloucester, forging letters and lying to them in order to gain power and status. He is also willing to betray his family and his king, Lear, in order to further his own interests.
Overall, a character's behavior can be used to build a more complete and nuanced portrayal of the character and their place in the story.

Importance of Character

What do characters do for the story?

Characters can also be used as a means of exploring themes and issues within the story, such as morality, power, and human nature. 
In King Lear, the characters are used to explore the theme of blindness, both literal and metaphorical, through the characters of King Lear and the Earl of Gloucester. King Lear is blinded by his own pride and vanity, leading to his downfall. Earl of Gloucester also experiences literal blindness, symbolizing his moral blindness, which also leads to his death. This theme highlights the dangers of not being able to see the truth and the consequences that can result from it.

What do characters do for the reader?

Characters in literature allow readers to study and explore a range of values, beliefs, assumptions, biases, and cultural norms represented by those characters. Characters can also serve as a way for readers to connect with the story emotionally, by relating to the characters' experiences and struggles. 
In King Lear, the character of Cordelia is an example of how characters can help readers connect to the story emotionally.  Cordelia's rejection of her father's demand for an expression of love in return for land and power, instead she chose to express her love honestly and sincerely. Her willingness to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of her principles and her father's well-being, makes her a sympathetic and relatable character for the reader. The audience can connect with Cordelia's emotions and struggles as she is put through various situations. Her love, loyalty, and honesty are qualities that many readers can relate to, making her a powerful and relatable character, who helps to bring the story to life and make it more engaging and emotional for the reader.
Overall, characters help to bring a story to life and make it more engaging and relatable for the reader.

Character Perspective

What is perspective and why is it important?

Perspective is a crucial element in literature as it allows the reader to understand how the narrator, characters, or speakers view and interpret the events of the story. Perspective is shaped by a variety of factors, such as background, personality traits, biases, and relationships. For example, a character who comes from a privileged background may have a different perspective on social issues compared to a character who comes from a disadvantaged background. 
Similarly, a character with a pessimistic personality may view events in a negative light, while an optimistic character may view the same events in a positive light. Biases and relationships also play a role in shaping perspective, as a character with a bias against a certain group may view events involving that group differently than a character without that bias. 
Perspective can also change and evolve throughout the story, as characters gain new information, experiences, and insights. Understanding the perspective of the narrator, characters, or speakers can give readers a deeper understanding of the story and its themes.

How is a character's perspective revealed?

A character’s perspective is both shaped and revealed by relationships with other characters, the environment, the events of the plot, and the ideas expressed in the text (College Board AP Lit CED 2020).
For example, King Lear's perspective is shaped by his relationships with his daughters. His initial view that Goneril and Regan love him unconditionally, is shattered by their betrayal. He is unable to see the truth about his daughters until it's too late and he's been stripped of his power and his family. This change in perspective is revealed through his monologues and his interactions with other characters. Additionally, the environment also shaped King Lear’s perspective. His initial perspective of being all-powerful and invincible is challenged by the harsh reality of being out in the storm, which causes him to realize his own mortality and vulnerability. 


Characters are the backbone of any story. They bring the story to life and make it more relatable and engaging for the reader. Characters can be described in different ways, for example, through their physical appearance, personality traits, and their motivations and beliefs. Dialogue and behavior also reveal a lot about a character, such as their attitude, values, and relationships with other characters.
Characters can also be used to explore themes and issues within the story, like morality, power, and human nature. For example, in King Lear, the characters are used to explore the theme of blindness, both literally and metaphorically, through the characters of King Lear and the Earl of Gloucester. Overall, characters are the foundation of any story and are important to bring it to life and make it more engaging for the reader.
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