Character in the Corpus: Article #1

Over the coming months, the ‘Character in the Corpus’ series will take the body of prose fiction set at A-level to investigate how these texts represent virtue along with accompanying classroom resources that provide practical suggestions as to how these texts can be used in virtue literacy.

Literature has been a source for numerous character education interventions. Such interventions stem from a long debate about the relationship of literature to the real world, its readers, and its potential to effect change, with roots in Aristotelian thinking and the (sometimes hazy) line dividing literature and philosophy. At heart, then, the series considers the particular power that narrative fiction can have in readers’ comprehension and practice of virtue.  

Why stories?

To begin, it’s worth setting out exactly why narrative is a useful tool for character education by having a look at the historic roots and formal features that moral discourse and narrative share.

The most obvious of these shared features is that narratives, particularly early narratives, act as a guide. From texts of antiquity through to the medieval period, narrative was a principle means by which moral codes were transmitted. Partly a consequence of literacy, which for many centuries was limited to those engaged in philosophy and the clergy, the practice of literary criticism has its roots in exegetical practices that extracted divine truths from narrative.

Secondly, the minimal definition of what constitutes a narrative (as opposed to say a description, argument or exposition) is that at its core it has a ‘complicating action’ and charts the progression from disruption to resolution. In this, the very essence of narrative complements the problem-solving structures that frame moral discourse and its conceptualisation by way of moral dilemmas.

Thirdly, a well-formed narrative must have a point – termed by linguists ‘tellability’ (Labov and Waletzky, 1967). Underpinning storytelling is an implicit compact that what the teller tells is of interest or benefit to its audience – narrative has a transactional value. In early texts, this point was almost always a ‘moral’. Yet despite shying away from overt didacticism from the sixteenth century onwards, what distinguishes canonical ‘literary’ texts from popular yarns is that this point is often thematic: that is, they deal with abstractions and societal concerns that are often moral. 

This transactional aspect of narrative indicates its relationship to community, meaning storytelling is a medium by which moral codes are not just transmitted but negotiated. The upshot of all this is that the act of storytelling is, in itself, virtuous because it fosters a sense of in-group belonging and communal affiliation. At the heart of this is the ‘experiential’ facet of storytelling, its transportative affordances that enable readers to consider alternative perspectives and develop fellow feeling and respect for others.

Finally, then, human character is an essential ingredient of narrative and moral thinking. Anthropomorphic and educative qualities form the core definition of narrative as “a perceived sequence of non-randomly connected events, typically involving, as the experiencing agonist, humans or quasi-humans, or other sentient beings, from whose experience we humans can learn” (Toolan, 2001: 8).

What fiction does particularly well is exploit those formal features that overlap with moral discourse. The idea that novels are schema is shared between linguistic and ethical thinking, which narratives “succeed in showing in an incarnated and concrete way, a manner of value realization. In effect, these models show a type of conduct, attitude or way of living that, apart from proposing values, presents the technique of putting them into practice” (Alzola, 2007: 157). The challenge facing educators is how to unlock narrative fiction’s capacity to do this.

As mentioned, the literary criticism practised in classrooms today has its roots in exegesis, which indicates that there’s already common ground between literary and moral education. The ways in which we talk about stories therefore become as important as the stories themselves, meaning that reasoning and reflection are important aspects of virtue literacy.

The curriculum and the canon

The English curriculum emphasises literature’s centrality within the humanities, with one A-level exam board declaring that “English literature is a subject that by its nature requires learners to consider individual, moral, ethical, social, cultural and contemporary issues” (WJEC). Virtue terminology, such as reflection, reason, service, creativity, sympathy, service and teamwork populate the A-level English curricula in delineating the subject’s objectives.

The link between literature and virtue literacy practices is evident from Key Stage 1, when pupils are “encouraged to link what they read or hear read to their own experiences” as a statutory requirement. Even early literary study complements virtue literacy practices, with the National Curriculum stipulating that Year 3 and Year 4 English lessons include pupils “discussing their understanding and explaining the meaning of words in context” and “drawing inferences such as inferring characters’ feelings, thoughts and motives from their actions”.

‘Character in the Corpus’ speaks to such curricula in two specific ways. Firstly, it subscribes to the view that literature is a subject concerned with important issues (including virtue) and that the mechanisms for teaching literature can support virtue literacy.

Secondly, it uses the materials that the curricula themselves prescribe: the A-level set texts create a substantial corpus (116 texts, c.15m words), representing fiction that spans the eighteenth to twenty-first centuries through a mix of autobiography, horror, gothic, realist, modern and postmodern literature, from the British Isles and beyond.

Of course, text selection is a contentious issue, and something carefully considered with respect to moral education (e.g., Maxwell, 2015; Arthur et al., 2014; Carroll, 2011; Keen, 2007; Nussbaum, 2001). For ‘Character in the Corpus’, text selection is more practical than evaluative, interrogating those texts already present in the classroom and integrating them with character education approaches.

Next time…

The next article will look more closely at what we mean when we talk about virtue literacy in specific reference to the A-level corpus. We’ll take a look at that corpus, how virtue fares in it over time and between different virtue types, as well as providing some suggestions as to how teachers might go about determining on precisely which virtues to focus.

Dr. Matthew Collins, Consultant, Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues.


Alzola, M. (2007) ‘Literatura infantil y educación ética’, Revista de Psicodidáctica, 12:1, as translated in Buganza, J. (2012) ‘Ethics, literature, and education’, Ethics and Education, 7:2, pp. 125-135.

Arthur, J., Harrison, T., Carr, D., Kristjánsson, K. and Davison, I. (2014) ‘Knightly Virtues: Enhancing Virtue Literacy through Stories’ Research Report, Birmingham: Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, University of Birmingham, [Online], Available at:

Carroll, N. (2011) ‘On some affective relations between audiences and characters in popular fictions’ in Coplan A., and Goldie, P. (eds) Empathy: philosophical and psychological perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 162-184.

Keen, S. (2007) Empathy and the Novel. New York: Oxford University Press.

Labov, W. and Waletzky, J. (1967) ‘Narrative Analysis: Oral Versions of Personal Experience’,  J. Helm (ed). Essays on Verbal and Visual Arts. Seattle: University of Washington, pp. 12–44.

Maxwell, B. (2016). ‘Reading Fiction Positively Impacts Empathy: a pedagogical legend?’ Conference Paper: Cultivating Virtues: Fourth Annual Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues Conference, Oriel College, Oxford, January 2016.

Nussbaum, M. (2001) Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Toolan, M. (2001) Narrative: A Critical Linguistic Introduction, 2nd Edition. London: Routledge.

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