Using Characterization in Literary Analysis

SUBJECTS — ELA: characterization; World/Ireland;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Fighting; Friendship; Leadership; Parenting;

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness; Caring.

AGE: 10+; MPAA Rating — PG;

1995; 94 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.

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TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students’ minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.

Film Study Worksheet for ELA Classes and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.

Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Movies as Literature Homework Project.


The movie is set in mid-20th century Ireland. Boys from two different villages, one wealthy and one poor, are at war and meet on several battlefields. The spoils of war are buttons cut from the clothing of the losers. In these battles, lessons are learned and loyalties are tested. Each group has a strong leader and the conflict is fueled by their competitive natures. By the film’s end, the two leaders, Fergus and Geronimo, have become friends and admit that the war was fought “for the hell of it”.

“War of the Buttons” is rich in humor and visual beauty. The young actors take advantage of a script which is strong on characterization to create empathic reactions between themselves and the audience. Secondary school students at all levels love this film.

The movie is loosely based on a French novel, La Guerre des Boutons by Louis Pergard, published in 1912.


Selected Awards:


Featured Actors:

Gregg Fitzgerald as Fergus; John Coffey as Geronimo; Gerard Kearney as Big Con; Darragh Naughton as Boffin; Brendan McNamara as Tim; Kevin O’Malley as Fishy John Cleere as Peter; Anthony Cunningham as Little Con; Thomas Kavanagh as Riley; Eveanna Ryan as Marie; John Crowley as Pat; Stuart Dannell-Foran as Tich; Danielle Tuite as Fionnuala; Helen O’Leary as Helen; and Yvonne McNamara as Maeve.


John Roberts.


This film is an excellent vehicle for showing students how to use an examination of character as a way to approach literary analysis. See Assignments, Projects, and Activities. “War of the Buttons” contains several life-lessons, including the value of friendship, the silliness of childhood rivalries and the danger that can come from taking youthful animosities too far. The value of buttons, curious at first, becomes a powerful symbol that illustrates how something trivial can take on great emotional value.


MINOR. One young boy is given alcohol to help him relax and he later walks back to his friends in a tipsy condition. One of the pranks involves placing graffiti on the sign of a church.


If you, your children, or anyone you know have been involved in a childhood rivalry similar to the one in this movie, talk to your kids about what happened and compare it to the events in the movie.


Hundreds of years ago, England conquered and ruled Ireland. The first English invasion was in the 1100s but the entire island was not subjugated until the end of the reign of Elizabeth I, in the 1600s. The Irish spoke a language called Gaelic until the English government took steps to require people in Ireland to speak English. For example, only English could be spoken in the schools. The Gaelic language almost died out, but beginning in the late 1800s there was an effort to revive it. After 1922, when the Irish won control of their government, the schools began to teach Gaelic. However, at that point English was the language used in almost all Irish homes. For a kid in school, learning Gaelic was like learning a foreign language.

Over the centuries of English rule, the Irish made several attempts to win their freedom. More than 400 years ago England was ruled by Queen Elizabeth I. England was in competition with Spain, which was then a major power in Europe. The Irish tried to free themselves through an alliance with the Spanish, however, the effort was unsuccessful. In the movie, we are shown the teacher giving a lesson about events in this period.

The Irish won home rule in 1922. Under home rule, foreign affairs were controlled by England but decisions about most local matters were made by the Irish themselves. Six counties in the north-eastern part of the island, about one-sixth of island’s land area, decided that they still wanted to be governed by England. In the 1600s, the English government encouraged Protestants from England and Scotland to emigrate to the six counties, now called Northern Ireland. The Protestants were given land and for hundreds of years the English government granted them special privileges. The Irish inhabitants of the area, almost all of whom were Catholic, were denied many rights. Eventually, the Protestants became a majority of the people living in Northern Ireland and the remaining Catholics were an oppressed minority. When Ireland won home rule in 1922, Northern Ireland opted to continue to be governed by England. Ireland became an independent republic in 1937, but Northern Ireland continued to be ruled by Great Britain.

Beginning in the 1960s and extending into the late 1990s, there was a low level civil war between Catholic militants, called the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Protestant militias. The IRA tried to destabilize the Northern Ireland government and force union with the rest of Ireland. The Protestant militias tried to terrorize the Catholic minority and counter the IRA. Approximately 3,600 people died and 36,000 were injured in “The Troubles”, as the conflict was called. “War of the Buttons” was made while The Troubles were still causing loss of life in Northern Ireland. In 1998, after the film was made, there was finally a settlement of the disputes in Northern Ireland.

The basic unit of currency in Ireland was the pound and the smallest unit of currency was a penny. The Irish and the English often refer to pennies as “pence”.


This Learning Guide shows how to use “War of the Buttons” to teach students to think about character as a key to literary analysis. The “Into/Through/Beyond” format provides a convenient way to structure the lesson. The first step is to give the brief introduction set out below.



Before showing the film, point out the location of Ireland, England, and Spain on a map or a globe. Through a short lecture, give students the information contained in the Helpful Background Section. These facts are designed to help students understand and appreciate the film.



As you start the movie, tell the class to pay attention to the relationships between Geronimo and Fergus and between Fergus and Marie. After showing the film, select appropriate Discussion Questions and give assignments from the Through Section of Assignments, Projects, and Activities.



You can go beyond the film with the Quick Discussion Question, Discussion Question #7, and Activities for Beyond. These questions and the activity will help students apply some of the lessons of the film to their own lives.


1. See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.


2. After Fergus kills the fox and earns Marie’s disdain, what does Fergus do which demonstrates that he is not so heartless after all?

Suggested Response:

He calls a truce in one particular battle and administers first aid to an injured rabbit.


3. What is the importance of the buttons? If they have a symbolic value, what is it?

Suggested Response:

Buttons hold our clothing together and keep us well presented. They are tokens, of little value in terms of material, but of great value in terms of the task they perform. Losing one’s buttons when poor could well mean being shamed at school the next day. Buttons are decorative and can be an aesthetic element in a dull wardrobe. In this film they are the spoils of war. They are a symbol of the triumph of the group that won the battle in which the buttons were taken.


4. The scene in which the boys from Ballydowse charge their enemies wearing no clothing is funny but also very clever. Why was going into combat naked a good idea?

Suggested Response:

Lack of clothing meant there would be no spoils of war, no buttons to take should the Ballydowse boys be defeated by Carrick. It was also an excellent surprise tactic that frightened and panicked the Carrickdowse boys. Remember that Geronimo called to the Carrickdowse boys to stand their ground, but they were so frightened by the nudity and the fact that the Ballydowse boys were so committed to the fight that they would remove their clothes, that the Carrickdowse boys broke and ran.


5. Which of the boys in Fergus’ gang is disloyal? How is this disloyalty shown?

Suggested Response:

Riley is disloyal. He does not work hard to help his mates earn the money they need. He slips into the headquarters and attempts to steal the buttons but is seen by Marie then tries to pull a scam about an injury. He later allows Geronimo to drive the tractor into the Ballydowse HQ.


6. Which of the boys in Carrickdowse is less than honorable?

Suggested Response:

Gorilla lacks honor. He picks on children smaller than himself, as shown by the scene at the bridge. He smears the cow dung onto Fergus’ face. He shot a rock rather than a dirt clod, injuring the rabbit. He hid out of harm’s way during the battle at the castle.


7. Describe two lessons that we can learn from the film.

Suggested Response:

There at least three. The first is that warriors who are locked in battle can respect one another. They can get past their differences and admire one another for the characteristics that make them admirable in the first place. This is also true of leaders. Both Fergus and Geronimo are compassionate young people who enjoy a good game. They respect one another and they are loyal to one another rather than to a cause. This is shown when Geronimo tries to find Fergus to help him after Fergus has run away and when Fergus saves Geronimo from falling off of the cliff-face. Second, we can learn that childhood rivalries may lead to dangerous situations, as when Geronimo destroys the Carrickdowse HQ with the tractor and when Fergus runs away from home. Third, the story shows how the personalities of leaders can affect conflict. Were Fergus and Geronimo less competitive, the war of the buttons would not have been fought as hard as it was; if it were not for Fergus and Geronimo, the war might not have happened at all.



1. Although this film doesn’t show kids getting hurt, the problem with fights between groups of kids is that they can go too far and people can get hurt. Describe a scene in this movie in which the conflict between these kids could easily have led to serious injury.

Suggested Response:

Here are three examples: 1) kids could have gotten hurt in any of the battles; this is especially true in the last fight at the castle; 2) when Geronimo ran the tractor through the HQ someone could have been hurt or killed, and 3) Fergus and Geronimo could have gotten hurt when Fergus ran away and Geronimo went after him.


2. What was the role of the competition between Fergus and Geronimo in fueling the war? Would there even have been a conflict without their ability to organize their friends and plan the battles? If so, how would it have been different?

Suggested Response:

As to the first question, the competitive natures of the two leaders definitely played an important role in creating and escalating the conflict. There would probably have still been conflict between the kids from the two towns, but it probably would not have been as organized or extensive.



3. What are the characteristics that make Fergus a good leader? Cite incidents from the movie to support your example.

Suggested Response:

(1) Fergus listens and learns. When Marie objects to killing the fox, it is clear that he listens to what she says and learns from it. This is shown in the scene in which Fergus bandaged the foot of the injured rabbit. (2) Fergus was able to find solutions to conflicts among his followers. It was Fergus who proposed a fair solution to the problem of how the money for the HQ was to be raised and how the responsibility to contribute was to be shared. The poor kids didn’t think it was fair for everyone to pay the same because the kids with access to money could easily pay their share while poor kids could not. Fergus decided that everyone would work to earn their contribution. (3) Fergus organized the battles and did his best to help his side win

See also question #2 above.



5. Friendship can be based on mutual respect and admiration even among opponents. In this movie, which characters have mutual respect and admiration for each other and how was it shown?

Suggested Response:

Fergus and Geronimo developed a friendship based on mutual respect and admiration. They showed it by helping each other and in the pillow fight at the end of the film.



6. In this movie, three adults interact with the young people: The teacher, Fergus’ father, and Riley’s father. What did they do and what message are the filmmakers trying to convey with their characterization of these adults?

Suggested Response:

The teacher not only instructs the kids in the classroom but he gives them guidance for situations outside of class. He supports Fergus against his father and the kids in general against the townspeople. The teacher is a good role model and his guidance is helpful to the kids. Fergus’ father is unreasonably harsh when Fergus comes home without his buttons. He beats Fergus and when Fergus is lost, he doesn’t care about finding him. The father wants Fergus sent away and denies that Fergus is his son. Riley’s father refuses to accept the fact that his son bears a lot of the responsibility for the damage to the tractor and blames it all on Geronimo and the other kids. Riley’s father should have made his son take responsibility for his behavior.


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.



(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends, and country)


1. Who is the least trustworthy character in the film? Whose trust does he betray?

Suggested Response:

The least trustworthy character is Riley. He betrays the trust of the group by being lazy. He betrays Marie by claiming to have an injury when he didn’t. He betrays the trust of his father and of the group by offering the tractor for use in the war.



(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)


See question on Friendship, above.




“War of the Buttons” offers teachers the opportunity to help students develop the ability to characterize effectively. In order to empathize with a character in a story and in order to create characters in their own stories, students need to look deeply into what authors or filmmakers do that lets readers and viewers know what a person is all about.

There are three important aspects of characterization: These aspects reveal feelings, values, and beliefs. We are rarely told, instead, we are usually shown, what characters feel, value and believe through the following techniques:

  • Description
  • Dialogue
  • Action.

The assignments set out below will help students use an exploration of character to develop a literary analysis of a story, whether in film or in print. Golden, J, Reading in the Dark, pg. xiii.

THROUGH “War of the Buttons”


Activity #1:

Discussion of Major Characters: Before having students write the paragraphs set out below, teachers should conduct a class discussion about the three major characters, Fergus, Geronimo and Marie. The teacher can simply ask questions or the class can be separated into groups of two or three students who are assigned to complete attribute webs or simply to list the attributes for the characters. Students should be reminded that characterization is delineated through (1) the character’s thoughts, words, speech patterns, and actions; (2) the narrator’s description; and (3) the thoughts, words, and actions of other characters. When students analyze character, they should be reminded to have these three sources in mind. Adapted from California English-Language Arts Content Standards – Grade 7, Reading 3.3 Groups should then share their results in class with the teacher guiding the students in a discussion of the characters and, if necessary, modeling the process of drawing out attributes of the character.


Activity #2:

Write a Paragraph About a Major Character: Have students write a paragraph about Fergus, the central character in “War of the Buttons”. Students should begin their paragraphs with a general statement that identifies Fergus as, say, the leader of the Ballydowse boys. This sentence is neutral. Then they must describe how Fergus appears. How does he look? How does he dress? How does he carry himself? They must write about the kinds of things he believes; these will be revealed through dialogue. What does he say that let’s us know what he is like? Finally, students must write about what Fergus does, what action he takes. Feelings are easily revealed through what a character does. Students can judge a character only after all of the details are given that support the conclusion and enable the readers to make these judgments for themselves. The last sentence in the paragraph, therefore, will be a judgment of Fergus. This sentence allows expression of an opinion whereas in the first sentence in this paragraph, a neutral statement introduced the character. Using this organizational pattern leads the readers to accept the opinion and, if done well, to agree.

Teachers may want to have their students characterize Geronimo, the leader of Carrickdowse, in the same pattern used to describe Fergus. One might well understand why these two boys become good friends by the end of the film. In many ways, the boys are alike.


Activity #3:

Detect and explain how characters drive important subplots: Assignments requiring students to analyze the relationship between main and minor characters and even ancillary characters are valuable at any grade level. “War of the Buttons” can be used to exercise a student’s ability to detect motivations and influences that affect characters and drive the plot. Often a character’s motivations and influences play a role in subplots or backstories. In this film, there is an important subplot involving Fergus’ family.

Have the students write paragraphs in which they explain the situation with Fergus’ family. Be sure that they show how his concerns about his family drive some of the action in the film. The difficulties Fergus experiences with a cruel father who actually denies paternity leads to a caring relationship with the teacher and motivation for running away from the wrath of the townspeople rather than facing the consequences of his actions. Without the backstory involving troubles at home and having to face the thought of being sent away, Fergus would not keep our respect as the other boys go to face the crowd.


Activity #4:

Analyze the value of relationships between characters: Marie is an important character in the film because of her special relationship with Fergus. Students can be assigned an essay in which they must show Marie’s role as not only the story’s narrator, providing the voice-over at the film’s beginning and end, but as someone who serves to draw out the character of Fergus. In their relationship lies an adolescent love story.


Activity #5:

Analyze how characters reveal values, morals and theme: Theme is often the backbone of a story, whether it is written or filmed. Students learn values and morals by watching characters relate to one another and by seeing how they handle situations and solve problems. The characteristics required to fix a problem and thus reveal theme include honesty, perseverance, discipline, intelligence, and loyalty. These are usually brought out by behaviors and dialogue of characters, sometimes of minor characters.

Students should select a character and show how a particular value is revealed through his or her role played in the film. This can be a one paragraph assignment. A full essay on this topic may require students to select three characters to illustrate how their characterization illuminates values. The depth of the assignments and the parameters of such assignments can vary considerably.

Students may want to consider once again the importance of Marie in her role as someone who gives moral direction to the other characters in the story. The students can be assigned to write paragraphs in which they note the scenes where Marie is important and then comment on the meaning of these scenes. In one scene Marie points out the cruelty of killing the fox. In another, she gathers buttons for the boys so they will not have to struggle to earn the buttons they feel are of great value and she later rains the buttons like jewels down on the upturned faces of the smiling boys. At one point Marie calls Riley out for his immature behavior and helps the audience to understand this character’s willingness to betray his friends. Each of these scenes shows Marie to be an important character linking the ideas in the film to the action.


Activity #6:

Analyze how characters reveal values, morals and theme: Another character who is important in helping reveal values is the teacher. Ask the students to write about what he represents to the boys, especially Fergus, and how his brief history lessons give the boys ideas. It is important that students begin to recognize how subordinate characters are used to clarify the values and intentions of the protagonists and antagonists. Students may want to write about parents in the film or the priest at the story’s end.


Activity #7:

Protagonist/Antagonist Identification and Transformation: An important concept the students can learn from “War of the Buttons” is the role of the antagonists. The good guy, bad guy distinction is often vague and of little value in understanding conflicts faced by protagonists. In this movie, there are what may be called good guys and bad guys on each side of the warring groups. There are good adults and bad adults. Ask the students to write a paragraph in which they show which characters fit into which category. Students must justify their choices with specific reference to the film. They may want to show how roles shift; the character of Geronimo, at first Fergus’ main antagonist, becomes his friend by the film’s end. When does the shift occur? Why? Was this transformation foreshadowed, and if so, where?


Activity #8:

Assignment: Informally Illuminate Universality of Theme: Assignments that encourage students to find connections between the ideas generated in the film and universal themes are always of value when it comes to teaching literary analysis. Rather than assign students to write a formal theme analysis, however, ask them to re-tell an episode in the film and then find the universal theme that may be derived from this episode. For example, the desire for revenge coupled with the unwillingness to accept defeat causes Geronimo to take the war too far when he drives the tractor into the Ballydowse HQ. Students can write about this event and then reflect on the feelings that may have pushed Geronimo over the edge. They should think about incidents in history or current events or in their own lives when someone simply went too far. By analyzing episodes in this way, students can gain skills in determining the themes suggested in the story. Many students find it difficult to make connections between what they see in film or read in literature books and what occurs in real life. By allowing students to write informal paragraphs, teachers can help students gain the confidence necessary to draw conclusions and to risk a guess at what idea may be suggested in a scene or in an event. Informality frees young writers to think more about what they have to say than what grade they might earn on the essay. It enables them to take risks.


Activity #9:

Creative Assignments:

  • Write a new ending. Rather than a rock climbing episode with a helicopter rescue, what might work to pull Fergus and Geronimo together and have them work cooperatively?
  • Add an adult woman character to the film, either as protagonist or antagonist. Be sure to show what she adds to push the story forward.
  • Write a new scene into the film. Be sure that it adds to the story and takes nothing away.
  • Change the setting altogether. Might this story work in New York City, rural Alabama, a small town in Idaho, or Los Angeles? The importance of place may become an issue here.

Offer students the opportunity to work in groups when appropriate while they are pulling together these writing assignments. They should be able to help one another with developing ideas and smoothing out any glitches in their writing. Students enjoy reading and hearing the creative assignments; provide the time for students to share their best work.


BEYOND “War of the Buttons”


Activity #10:

Reflection on Childhood Rivalries Ask students to write a reflection on childhood rivalries and the dangers involved when these rivalries go beyond the fun they may at first seem to be. Ask them to look back into the film and see if they can spot bullies or the kind of personalities that can turn a game or a competition into a serious problem. They need to get personal here: ask them to narrate a time in their own childhood when they either participated in or heard about a war game played by kids. For some of your students, this may bring up neighborhood gang activities. In some communities, gang warfare is deadly and it is not about buttons; it is about turf and drugs and various criminal enterprises.


CCSS Anchors Here.


Bridges to Reading Here.


Links Here.


  • Golden, J., Reading in the Dark — Using Film as a Tool in the English Classroom, 2001, National Council of Teachers of English, Urbana.
  • The sources for information on Irish history are the articles on “Ireland” and “Northern Ireland” in Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed August 31, 2008.

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