Social and Emotional Learning

Life Lessons From Fictional Characters

Writing dialogues between themselves and literary characters can enhance students’ empathy and ability to deal with hardships.

August 8, 2018
A middle school student writing in a notebook in English class
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Stories are one way that humankind passes down wisdom for dealing with life’s greatest challenges. Young adult literature is particularly rich in stories that equip kids to navigate life’s joys and sorrows, in part by evoking empathy for people seemingly different from themselves. Such books routinely deal with deep, dark issues and provide a forum for discussing a range of problems that no child should ever have to deal with—but that too many do.

Recently, a 60 Minutes report about overcoming childhood trauma taught me the power of simply asking, “What happened to you?” when dealing with a child who’s chronically acting out. Instead of leaping to the indictment of “What’ve you done now?!” the emphasis becomes one of understanding and healing.

With this new perspective, I now ask my students to become “character therapists” and give voice to literary characters’ suffering and confusion. When they act as armchair psychologists for fictional characters, those students who are dealing with their own trauma can find affinity and viable strategies for coping by talking characters through their hardships, even if those struggles differ from their own.

For students who have no major personal issues, facilitating character therapy instills in them the skills anyone needs when times get tough and empowers them with the knowledge of how they can help when others are in emotional distress.

The Character Therapy Process

For this project, students write a dialogue between themselves and a character who has undergone severe stress, addressing the character as though they were a real person, whose reactions the student must imagine. Students can interact with the story by adding probable details and situations that may be only hinted at in the book. The point isn’t for students to sensationalize what characters have endured—it’s to respectfully put themselves in the shoes of their chosen character and give voice to the character’s experiences.

I have students follow a four-step process in writing these dialogues.

1. Speaking truth: Students allow the character to experience the calm of release and comfort of empathy by describing whatever happened that troubles them. Students can be taught to handle delicate issues with the proper sensitivity and seriousness. Instead of a traditional summary of the story, this step assesses students’ comprehension of the story.

2. Acknowledging feelings: Students ask the character to identify their most persistent distressing thoughts and help the character understand how those thoughts influence how they feel. Here students move from basic comprehension to inference as they read between the lines to identify underlying emotions.

3. Analyzing actions: Students assist the character in realizing that their actions are often a reaction to how they feel. However, the character’s choices may actually be making things worse, and their anger may be directed at the wrong people. Moving higher on Bloom’s Taxonomy, students now deeply examine key plot developments.

4. Moving forward: Students encourage the character to socialize with positive people and to help others. They support the character in moving from excuses and victimhood to surviving and thriving. Finally, students attempt to problem solve and create viable solutions for the character to consider.

Getting Personal

The main goal of assigning this type of creative literary dialogue is to give every student the opportunity to vicariously participate in the process of finding hope and healing. Even though it involves character therapy and not self-therapy, there’s a great deal of social and emotional learning (SEL) that occurs whenever students find role models who successfully work through their suffering and sorrow.

Often, literary characters mirror the pain some students have themselves endured, and allowing each student to choose the character that speaks to them on a personal level enhances their growth in emotional intelligence. It also gives students the satisfaction of knowing they’ve been a part of someone else’s healing process—even if only on an imaginary level—and provides the comfort of knowing that if others can move beyond adversity, so can they.

While students are free to disclose personal details and anecdotes while writing these dialogues, the focus is always on helping the character talk through their problems. Therefore, any student’s self-revelations should occur organically, be relevant to the character’s experiences, and be based on the student’s comfort level. If certain students experience any type of catharsis by opening up to a character, this enhances this process, but such disclosure is neither necessary nor required.

I’ve used a wide variety of books for this assignment, including The Outsiders, House of the Scorpion, the Harry Potter series, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Fault in Our Stars.

Practicing Active Listening

Teachers can provide instruction on active listening and offer students sentence starters to keep their dialogues flowing. The following tips prove to the other person in both casual and academic conversations that you’re not only hearing what they say but also understand and empathize with their comments and experiences.

  • Initiating conversations: “I want to listen. Please share with me _____.”
  • Continuing dialogue: “I want to understand. Please explain—tell me more about _____.”
  • Offering assistance: “I’m willing to help. Let’s discuss _____” or “I want to support you in _____.”
  • Reflecting back: “What I’m hearing is _____” or “It sounds like you’re saying _____.”

Character therapy is a great way English language arts teachers can infuse SEL into their curriculum and break away from the standard book report or culminating essay.