Fiction and the Development of Character

Books and stories are so full of amazing people—people who face challenges and develop strengths because of it. Imagine this story:

An exceptionally gifted child grows up with gifted siblings. While he is very young, adults notice him and his life starts to take a different path than his brother and sister. As any parent would expect, the siblings aren’t always happy about the attention he gets. Sibling rivalry becomes a nasty game in the family. He is aware of it, but continues to love to learn, explore, and grow—and his talents shine even more.

GNU Free Documentation License, Diego Grez 2007 wiki commonsThat child finds the same reaction outside his home. In school he is bullied; sometimes that fervor is fed by his siblings. The bullying grows from being teased about being different to being ostracized for it, until major fights erupt with his antagonists. Violence becomes a reality in his life.

His love of logic, challenges, mysteries, and envisioning change lead him to the world of games. There he explores his ideas with abandon. What will happen if I try this? How will things shift in the community if a given obstacle is removed? He is a practical soul, so he manages to let his love of games be an outlet but keeps his connection to the reality of his life.

Those adults who took note of him as a youngster are still in his life, too. They see the bullying and violence as well as his amazing gifts and insights. He is moved to a new school setting, where he is honed for leadership and given chances to use his mind on larger challenges. His siblings are moving along parallel paths, and they all dance with and around each other like cats that fight and then share a snooze together on a sunny bench.

The path set in motion by those adults, helping him manage his abilities and overcome challenges, takes him to a leadership role in a huge organization. He encounters allies and enemies. As he masters his challenges, he gains perspective on the motivations of the people in his life. That insight helps him take control of his own life, but he has to make hard choices. As he confronts his own beliefs about right and wrong, his understanding and compassion grow to new heights. His path is no longer directed by others, it is chosen by him.

This could be the story of some genius who developed a massive multimedia conglomerate or built a cross-country railroad in a past era. Or it could be an intriguing television series, like Game of Thrones. But in this case it comes from one of the many excellent novels and biographies that show this same type of growth in ability and character.

The boy in the story is Ender Wiggin from the 1986 book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Chances are you will be hearing a lot about Ender in November, as the movie version is now out.1986 book Ender's Game I loved the book when it came out and hope that the movie is a good retelling. As a book, it was the starting point for several discussions between my sons and myself. Choices others make for you, choices you make for yourself. Why brilliance, tempered with understanding, can shine more brightly than brilliance by itself. Oh, and why you have to love your siblings even if you don’t always want to.

It would also be a great discussion starter for many topics relevant to educators and parents. Does sibling rivalry sometimes become bullying? When others want you to take a path, how do you know if that path is for you or for them? Should you sometimes choose what is good for others even if you do not want to take that path?

November is National Novel Writing Month. It is also a good time to try reading some novels that might be not be on your current reading list. This can be a great way to open up discussions with the teens in your life. Check out our post “For Teen Read Week, Teens Tell Us What They Love to Read” for some ideas of books to read that you might not find on your own. Or try stepping outside of your comfort area and reading a book from a genre you wouldn’t typically choose.

Good fiction is full of tension, character growth, moral decisions, interesting situations, and strong writing. It comes in many forms: historical-fiction with a footing in the past; fantasy-fiction with a magical aspect; age-specific fiction aimed at a certain group; science-fiction with a scientifically based premise influencing the tale; and other forms as well.

How can novels help students learn about themselves? What novels have you used for classroom or family discussion?

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About Mary Stennes Wilbourn

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