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What happens to you when you read?
What happens to you when you read?

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5.1 How do you relate to characters in a story?

Doing the reading and answering the questions that follow will take you around 5-6 minutes. If possible, try to read these extracts in a quiet room with a minimum of distractions, but again don’t worry if these ideal conditions are not possible.

The passage you are about to read comes from the beginning section of the book. It is about a young boy called Will and his mother. It also talks a little bit about Will’s father.

Extract 1 The Subtle Knife: His Dark Materials Book 2 by Phillip Pullman

Will had first realized his mother was different from other people, and that he had to look after her, when he was seven. They were in a supermarket, and they were playing a game: they were only allowed to put an item in the cart when no one was looking. It was Will’s job to look all around and whisper “Now,” and she would snatch a tin or a packet from the shelf and put it silently in the cart. When things were in there they were safe, because they became invisible.

It was a good game, and it went on for a long time, because this was a Saturday morning and the shop was full, but they were good at it and worked well together. They trusted each other. Will loved his mother very much and often told her so, and she told him the same.

So when they reached the checkout Will was excited and happy because they’d nearly won. And when his mother couldn’t find her purse, that was part of the game too, even when she said the enemies must have stolen it; but Will was getting tired by this time, and hungry too, and Mummy wasn’t so happy any more; she was really frightened, and they went round and round putting things back on the shelves, but this time they had to be extra careful because the enemies were tracking them down by means of her credit card numbers, which they knew because they had her purse …

And Will got more and more frightened himself. He realized how clever his mother had been to make this real danger into a game so that he wouldn’t be alarmed, and how, now that he knew the truth, he had to pretend not to be frightened, so as to reassure her.

So the little boy pretended it was a game still, so she didn’t have to worry that he was frightened, and they went home without any shopping, but safe from the enemies; and then Will found the purse on the hall table anyway. On Monday they went to the bank and closed her account, and opened another somewhere else, just to be sure. Thus the danger passed.

But some time during the next few months, Will realized slowly and unwillingly that those enemies of his mother’s were not in the world out there, but in her mind. That made them no less real, no less frightening and dangerous; it just meant he had to protect her even more carefully. And from the moment in the supermarket when he realized he had to pretend in order not to worry his mother, part of Will’s mind was always alert to her anxieties. He loved her so much he would have died to protect her.

As for Will’s father, he had vanished long before Will was able to remember him. Will was passionately curious about his father, and he used to plague his mother with questions, most of which she couldn’t answer.

“Was he a rich man?”

“Where did he go?”

“Why did he go?”

“Is he dead?”

“What was he like?”

The last question was the only one she could help him with. John Parry had been a handsome man, a brave and clever officer in the Royal Marines, who had left the army to become an explorer and lead expeditions to remote parts of the world. Will thrilled to hear about this. No father could be more exciting than an explorer. From then on, in all his games he had an invisible companion: he and his father were together hacking through the jungle, shading their eyes to gaze out across stormy seas from the deck of their schooner, holding up a torch to decipher mysterious inscriptions in a bat-infested cave … They were best of friends, they saved each other’s life countless times, they laughed and talked together over campfires long into the night.

But the older he got the more Will began to wonder. Why were there no pictures of his father in this part of the world or that, with frost-bearded men on Arctic sledges or examining creeper-covered ruins in the jungle? Had nothing survived of the trophies and curiosities he must have brought home? Was nothing written about him in a book?

His mother didn’t know. But one thing she said stuck in his mind.

She said, “One day, you’ll follow in your father’s footsteps. You’re going to be a great man too. You’ll take up his mantle …”

And though Will didn’t know what that meant, he understood the sense of it, and felt uplifted with pride and purpose. All his games were going to come true.

His father was alive, lost somewhere in the wild, and he was going to rescue him and take up his mantle … It was worth living a difficult life, if you had a great aim like that.

So he kept his mother’s trouble secret. There were times when she was calmer and clearer than others, and he took care to learn from her then how to shop and cook and keep the house clean, so that he could do it when she was confused and frightened. And he learned how to conceal himself too, how to remain unnoticed at school, how not to attract attention from the neighbours, even when his mother was in such a state of fear and madness that she could barely speak. What Will himself feared more than anything was that the authorities would find out about her, and take her away, and put him in a home among strangers. Any difficulty was better than that. Because there came times when the darkness cleared from her mind, and she was happy again, and she laughed at her fears and blessed him for looking after her so well; and she was so full of love and sweetness then that he could think of no better companion, and wanted nothing more than to live with her alone for ever.

But then the men came.

They weren’t police, and they weren’t social services, and they weren’t criminals – at least, as far as Will could judge. They wouldn’t tell him what they wanted, in spite of his efforts to keep them away; they’d only speak to his mother. And her state was fragile just then.

Now complete Activity 5 as soon as possible after reading Extract 1.

Activity 5 Reading from The Subtle Knife

Timing: Allow approximately 25 minutes for this activity.

The following statements and questions ask you to think about how you related to Will. You should respond to them as soon as you can after doing the reading. Please select the number which best represents your response to each statement or question, where 1 represents ‘not at all’ and 7 represents ‘very much’.

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These three statements/questions measured the extent to which you identified with Will. Identification is one of the psychological processes that are thought to be important when we read fiction. The term describes a process where readers feel like they take the place of a character and react to her or his experiences as if they were happening to them (Sestir & Green, 2010). As you may have noticed when answering the questions, identification, if it happens, centres around one particular fictional character rather than the action in the extract in general. There are several different ways in which psychologists have tried to measure identification with characters in books, films or television, but the above set of questions was developed by Sestir and Green in 2010.

According to the scale a score of three would mean you didn’t identify with Will at all, and a score of 21 would mean you fully identified with him. ‘Your identification with Will’ score is shown above.

Obviously, the Extract 1 was very short and you probably only spent a few minutes reading it, so arguably this will have only given you a very limited opportunity to identify with the character.

The writing activity in the next section will allow you the opportunity to explore Will’s character further.