The following short stories provide excellent examples of characterization. Use them to teach literature or as a template for creative writing.
Characterization Lesson Plan
Here’s a good characterization lesson plan you can use with any of the short stories listed and many not listed.
- Discuss the four ways an author develops characters: (1) direct description; (2) character’s actions; (3) character’s words and thoughts; (4) other characters’ words and thoughts.
- As you read a literary work, instruct students to fill out a chart. In the left column, write the character’s name. Label the columns with the aforementioned ways to develop a character.
I created a Characterization Chart with Microsoft Word. You can edit it. It can be used with a novel, a short story with multiple characters, or multiple short stories.
List of Short Stories for Teaching Characterization
Short story writers do not have the luxury that novel writers have in regards to character development. The character development in short stories requires conciseness and clarity. Following is a list of short stories with excellent examples of characterization.
“Billy Budd” by Herman Melville – The narrator says of Billy Budd, “my forecastle was a rat-pit of quarrels…But Billy came, and it was like a Catholic priest striking peace in an Irish shindy…a virtue went out of him, sugaring the sour ones…Anybody will do anything for Billy Budd; and it’s the happy family here” (433). Notice how the narrator describes the effect Billy has on his crew more than he actually describes Billy. Teaching Billy Budd–be forewarned–is difficult, even with high level students, but it is worth the effort.
- “The Cat Bird Seat” by James Thurber – Mr. Erwin Martin, the mild-mannered head of the filing department, despises his new boss, so he plots to kill her. He arrives at her apartment, smoking, drinking, and toting a weapon. Thurber develops his most ironic madman in “The Cat Bird Seat” demonstrating just how far Erwin will go to make his life run smooth. “The Cat Bird Seat” makes an excellent short story for teaching irony as well. If your class enjoys Thurber, try “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
"A White Heron" by Sara Orne Jewett. In this story packed with symbolism, the protagonist, Sylvia, must make a tough decision. Does she betray her nature or withhold the truth from a handsome hunter. If you're looking to teach theme, symbolism, conflict, characterization, or literary genres, check out this super duper teacher's guide for "A White Heron." It's got lesson plans, graphic organizers, essay rubrics, a quiz, answer keys, a copy of the story, and more. Learn more at my "White Heron" web page.
- "Leiningen vs. the Ants" by Carl Stephenson - a hard-headed plantation owner refuses to abandon his plantation despite the encroachment of a swarm of Brazilian killer ants. Leiningen presents a meaningful opportunity to examine the qualities of a strong leader--he gives his workers a choice; he's prepared; he does the most dangerous jobs himself; he never panics. Instruct students to analyze the pros and cons of Leiningen's decision to fight the ants and whether or not they would follow him.
- "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" by Jack Finney - Actions speak louder than words. Use this axiom to analyze Tom Benecke--he stays home on Friday night to work; he crawls out on a window ledge several stories up to retrieve a piece of paper.
- "The Story of an Hour" - We learn a lot about Mrs. Mallard in an hour. She's kind of emotional, but doesn't always possess the emotions you expect.
ELA Common Core Standards Covered
Teaching characterization in short stories may cover the following ELA Common Core Standards.
- RL.9-10.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
- RL.9-10.10 By the end of grade 9, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 9-10 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range. By the end of grade 10, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, at the high end of the grades 9-10 text complexity band independently and proficiently.
- RL.9-10.3 Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.
Teaching Literary Elements with Short Stories
Understanding literary elements is necessary for literary analysis. These short stories will help you teach literary elements.
- The Best American Short Stories
- Short Stories for Teaching Theme
- Short Stories for Teaching Irony
- Short Stories for Teaching Symbolism
- Short Stories for Teaching Conflict
- Short Stories for Teaching Foreshadowing
- Short Stories for Teaching Imagery
- Short Stories for Teaching Characterization