ACT Reading: Character Development

Prose fiction passages on the ACT Reading can be pretty difficult for students. Because they tell stories rather than share information, their structures are less predictable and less navigable than those of expository or informational articles. Many questions will test you on the subtle details of fiction writing that may not be easily detectable. One such question type is “character development.”Whether or not we are aware of it, we all are familiar with the narrative device called “character development.” Nearly all stories—fiction, movies, plays, etc—rely on character development techniques to make characters come alive. It is because of effective character development that we know that Hamlet is a brooding, melancholic cynic, that Gatsby is a love-struck idealist, and that Raphael of the Ninja Turtles is the impulsive hothead of the group.
The key to these questions is to isolate the parts of the story that reveal character traits. Generally, an author will rarely list the qualities of his or her characters—characterization is often revealed through description and action.

Character Development Practice Question

Let’s take a look at this example to see how character development works on the ACT Reading:
My dad understood the reason for my lies,
and I thought that we would be able to keep a
secret, father and son. I knew it was possible
that Mom would find me out, and I was avoiding
(5)      that day. She didn’t understand me, and she
would never have wanted to do what I had been
doing. Dad told me that he wouldn’t tell her as
long as I kept my grade in English class above a
B. But she found me out anyway, and I knew it
(10)   on the day that I came home from school and she
was waiting for me in the kitchen. She was
sitting at the table with an opened envelope
in front of her, a typed letter and a pink slip in her
(15)        I walked inside and closed the door behind
“What’s this for, Jake?” Mom asked. She was
drinking a cup of green tea the size of a soup
bowl, and it steamed as she stirred it, the metal
(20)   spoon clanking against the ceramic cup’s sides.
“Well, um. Let me see,” I said. She handed me
the letter, but I knew what it was going to say
before I scanned its contents. The name of my
high school was written in blue at the top of the
(25)   letterhead, and my English teacher had signed
her name to the pink slip, which verified that I
had been absent from class seven times in the
last month. I paused and acted as if I were
reading the letter carefully, and then I
(30)   responded: “It appears to be a letter stating the
number of times I’ve missed English class in the
last month.”
“I see that. Is it true?” she asked, accusingly,
her eyes narrowing in scrutiny.
(35)        She had put me on the spot, and I needed to
think fast. Maybe I should tell her the truth, I
thought, the truth being that I had been fishing
all of those mornings, that it was the right time
of the year for catching trout and that English
(40)   literature could wait. My dad had opened the
previous warning letter, and he said he would
have done the same thing himself. That’s when
we had made the pact. We wouldn’t tell Mom as
long as I showed up for tests and kept up my
(45)   grade
. I had done my part, and I was tired of
trying to hide the truth.
“Jake,” she said sternly, “You will attend all of
your classes this month, and I will call to make
(115) sure of that. No more fishing.” That was that. She
walked back into the kitchen, and I heard her sit
down and start to stir her tea. My dad looked up
at me from the bottom of the stairs, his eyes
sympathetic and sad.
(120)      “Sorry, bud,” he said.

“Yeah, me too.” I got up from the stairs and
slowly walked to my room, exposed and
Which of the following best describes how Jake’s dad felt when he found out that Jake’s mom knew that Jake had been missing school?
A. Angry and betrayed
B. Shocked by the news
C. Convinced that Jake deserves any punishment he receives
D. Sad and apologetic for his son’s misfortune


Notice that if we read the question without reading the passage, all of the answers seem reasonable. We will really have to understand the father’s character in order to answer this question. In the excerpt from  the passage above, we are given the first three paragraphs and the ending of the passage, enough to reveal the main conflict in the story and also reveal the father’s attitude toward Jake’s problem. First, let’s identify the main conflict of the story: Jake’s mother has just been notified that Jake has been missing English class; Jake has been ditching class to go fishing, a secret which Jake’s father has agreed to keep from Jake’s mother.
Even in this brief summary, we already have an idea of the father’s attitude toward his son’s ditching. Characterization is made even more clear when Jake’s father, after having learned about the discipline he would receive,  “looked up at [Jake]…his eyes sympathetic and sad. “Sorry, bud,” he said.” Notice that these lines do not explicitly tells us how Jake’s father felt, but they reveal his attitude through his words (Sorry, bud), his actions (agreeing to keep the fishing a secret), and his descriptions (sad, sympathetic eyes). At this point, the only possible answer is D, “sad and apologetic for his son’s misfortune.”