Think about a time you talked about a favorite character in a book you had read. Maybe you spoke about the character in a literature class at school. Or, perhaps, you discussed the character with a friend or in a book group.
How did you do it? Did you describe what they looked like? Did you tell what the character did in the story? Did you talk about why you liked the character?
In today’s Everyday Grammar, we will discuss one of my favorite characters, Mrs. Frisby. She is from the children’s book, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien.
Mrs. Frisby is a field mouse and a mother. Her mate, father to their children, has died. Mrs. Frisby needs help moving her family to their summer home.
This week, we will consider a few areas when looking at Mrs. Frisby: the character’s appearance or looks and her thoughts and speech. In a future Everyday Grammar, we will look at her actions and how other characters think about her.
The character’s appearance
Often story writers use descriptive language such as adjectives to provide a mental picture of the character’s appearance.
Let us look at how Robert C. O’Brien describes Mrs. Frisby’s appearance:
With her forepaws and sharp teeth she pulled off a part of the husk from the top ear of corn…
Here O’Brien describes Mrs. Frisby’s physical appearance while she is actively seeking food for her children.
“Forepaws” is a compound noun. “Fore” means front in this case. Paws are the animal’s feet.
Mrs. Frisby’s front teeth are described with the adjective “sharp.”
When I think of Mrs. Frisby’s physical appearance, I picture a small, light brown mouse with a white stomach.
The character’s thoughts and speech
Another way to describe a character is through the thoughts and feelings of the character and what they say.
In one event, Mrs. Frisby tries to save Jeremy, a crow or black bird who tied himself up in a fence. The two of them are in discussion.
(Mrs. Frisby) “Why did you pick up the string?”
The crow, who was very young indeed – in fact only a year old – said… “Because it was shiny.”
(Mrs. Frisby) “You knew better...”
“Come down here,” she said. “I’ll get the string off.”
“How?” said the crow…
“Don’t argue. I have only a few minutes...”
Mrs. Frisby is trying to understand how Jeremy got himself tied up in the fence.
To do this Mrs. Frisby uses a wh-question of “why.” She wants to know the reason why Jeremy is in this situation. This shows that Mrs. Frisby is very curious and is always questioning.
Mrs. Frisby also uses the imperative or command form in the sentences:
“Come down here…” and
The structure for the imperative or command form is:
Base form of main verb (no subject)
We understand the subject of commands to be “you”, but we do not need to write the subject when making the command.
So instead of:
“You come down here.”
Mrs. Frisby just says, “Come down here.”
Mrs. Frisby’s mothering skills come out as she tries to help Jeremy, so she uses commands to tell Jeremy what to do.
Thoughts of a character are just as important as what they say. If we know what a character thinks, this can help us understand what motivates the character.
For example, before Mrs. Frisby offers to help Jeremy, we are given some understanding of what she thinks about him.
Birdbrain, thought Mrs. Frisby, and then recalled what her husband used to say: The size of the brain is no measure of its capacity.
Instead of using quotation marks (“…”) that show speech, the author only uses verbs and commas to show what Mrs. Frisby is thinking.
The two verbs are “thought” and “recalled.” These verbs are used in the past tense to show Mrs. Frisby already had these thoughts and to help with telling the story.
“Thought” is the irregular past tense of “think.” “Recalled” is the regular past tense form of recall, which means to remember.
Mrs. Frisby thinks that Jeremy is not very smart for getting tied up in the fence. Then she remembers a saying her husband had about brain power.
In this week’s report we looked at how to describe a character from a book. We considered how the author uses adjectives to describe Mrs. Frisby’s appearance. We can think about the character's talks with other characters, like how Mrs. Frisby was questioning Jeremy or how she used commands. We even looked at her thoughts and memories.
Here is how I would describe Mrs. Frisby so far with what we know about her:
Mrs. Frisby is a small, brown field mouse and mother. She uses her sharp teeth when finding food for her children. Although Mrs. Frisby is a curious mouse, she always questions the situation. She uses her mothering skills to help others in need.
Let’s end this report by continuing our homework assignment. Use your favorite character from a book. Try to find where the character is described. What adjectives are used to describe their appearance?
Next, look at where they are speaking. Find those quotation marks. What are they saying? Find parts in the story where the character’s thoughts are shown. What are they thinking or remembering?
Write these sections down and send them to us at email@example.com.
We may use your writing in a future report of Everyday Grammar.
I’m Faith Pirlo. I'm Andrew Smith. And I'm Jill Robbins.
Faith Pirlo wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.
Describe your favorite character in the comments below or write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Words in This Story
character – n. a person (or animal) who appears in a story, book, play, movie, or television show
literature – n. written works considered as having high quality and ideas of lasting and widespread interest
husk – n. the outside of something that has had its insides removed
paw – n. the foot of an animal
fence – n. a barrier (as of wood or wire) to prevent escape or entry or to mark a boundary
string - n. a long, thin piece of material that one uses to hang things or connect things together
motivate–v. to give someone energy or encouragement to do something
birdbrain – n. a way to insult another person’s intelligence by comparing it to the size of a bird’s brain
capacity – n. the largest amount that something can hold
quotation – n. a group of words taken from a written work or speech and repeated by someone other than the writer or speaker
irregular – adj. not following the usual rules about what should be done
regular – adj. following the normal patterns by which word forms