How literary characters can help students discover their individuality

A pitch for a new elective class 

By Catherine Gonzalez, NJEA Preservice communications chair and The College of New Jersey’s local chapter’s points chair 

From a young age, I’ve loved reading novels, being most drawn to ones with compelling characters. It’s always thrilled me to learn minute details about their lives and personal characteristics. The more I felt involved in their day-to-day worlds, the better. 

This enthusiasm for literary characters transferred from the page to the world around me. Like literary characters, people all have so many special attributes and interests that make them who they are.  

Despite my wonder at how unique each person was, I often felt dejected about how much I fell short compared to my classmates, whether it be through my general academic slowness or social awkwardness. This feeling was especially prominent in middle school and my earlier high school years, when I believed that what really made me unique was my deficiency at everything. 

Near the beginning of the COVID-19 shut-down, I felt compelled to dive deep into something that I’d heard about a couple of times at school: the Myers-Briggs test.  

I loved learning about what my combination of psychological preferences revealed about my strengths and weaknesses, as well as guessing those of my family and friends. Since I had no access to the inner worlds of the people I was guessing about, however, I had limited scope for achieving the latter accurately. 

Thus, again comes in my dear friends from the pages of fiction. I became obsessed with poring over what I knew about my favorite characters, searching through their texts to determine what their Myers-Briggs types were, and browsing through analyses from readers online to compare my perspectives with theirs.  

This led to my adopting this same process with other personality-based categorizing systems that I’d learned about, such as the Enneagram, Four Temperaments Theory, and Multiple Intelligences Theory. I now have a running chart that I return to with new characters and new thoughts for characters I’ve already analyzed. 

Seeing that this process helped me better understand my own strengths and weaknesses, I believe that an elective class that offers the opportunity to discover this process will do the same thing for middle school and high school students. 

In this class, students would read a few books throughout the semester. Paired with each book would be one of the personality-based categorizing systems, so students would only need to focus on learning about one system at a time and applying it in one place at a time. They would then do research and write about the traits they exhibit from certain personality clusters. The students would include evidence from their own lives. Afterward, they would do the same thing using textual evidence about a character from the accompanying book.  

At the end of the semester, the students would select a character from one of the books they’ve studied throughout the semester and apply all of the systems to that one character. By wrapping up the semester like this, students would be able to explicitly see how many different personal preferences and skills make up one person. 

This class would be useful to students for a number of reasons: it would prompt improvement in literary analysis, encourage a love of reading, teach them more about themselves, and help them appreciate their differences and the differences of others. 

Middle school and high school can be tough: there is often pressure to act as others do or be a “picture-perfect” student. If students are able to see the ways that they are special, then they’re liable to become happier and thus more successful at everything they do.