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The Terabithia Inside Us All: A Study of Character

By M.G. Knight

Bridge to Terabithia is one of the most praised books in children’s literature. And why wouldn’t it be? It features a moving plot, tangible settings, and heightened tension. However, the element that truly makes this novel so preeminent is Katherine Paterson’s astounding use of character. By creating a realistic main protagonist, tying his development to the story’s tension, and using Terabithia symbolically to advance his growth, Paterson creates an enthralling read for all audiences. By the end of the novel, readers will have been taken on a rollercoaster of emotions that illustrate the joys and sorrows of life.


Numerous critics maintain that Bridge to Terabithia is solely about death, but the character development alone shows differently: it is also about friendship (Chaston). When fifth-grader Jess meets Leslie, his new neighbor, he initially disregards her. But when the two become friends and create an imagined world together, Jess’ life changes. After Leslie dies, Jess begins to see how much she meant to him and how much he learned from their friendship.

Creating a Realistic Protagonist

Katherine Paterson uses the third person, limited omniscient point of view in her novel. This gives us the feeling that we are a microscopic device in the viewpoint character’s (Jess’) head, seeing the world as he does and hearing his thoughts. By choosing to limit her audience’s vantage point to only what Jess sees, Paterson creates a solid basis for empathy; readers feel what Jess does and can recognize subtext easily. We are able to realize that Jess wants someone to love and respect him, just as we can identify the character’s strengths and weaknesses that he cannot see in himself. Aside from experiencing Jess’ agony after Leslie dies, the protagonist’s descriptions of his drawings immediately comes to mind when considering the advantages of this point of view. Jess sneaks into the house to draw, which he does “the way some people drink whiskey” (Paterson, Bridge 12). His father clearly sees drawing as a waste of time, and Jess’ insistence on doing it in secret illustrates his passion and his desire for his father’s approval.

Paterson rarely states the character’s notions outright; instead, dialogue and character interactions convey Jess’ inner emotions. Founder and president of Serendipity Literary Agency, LLC, Regina Brooks discusses the importance of character interactions in her book, Writing Great Books for Young Adults. In the work, she claims that people are largely defined by their relationships with others, and it is significant that authors use this to their advantage (Brooks 27). In Bridge to Terabithia, Jess is defined and shaped by his relationships with his father, mother, May Belle, and Leslie; each social group has a role they expect Jess to fulfill. It is from his interactions with these people that we learn more about who Jess is. Although he detests having all the responsibilities put on his shoulders because he is the oldest at home, Jess does his chores with very little grumbling because he yearns for his parent’s approval (Paterson, Bridge 9-10). Comparatively, Leslie sees Jess as someone to open her heart to and to respect for his strengths, while May Belle looks up to her older brother as a role model.

The characters’ dialogue in Bridge to Terabithia is also used to illustrate age, education, and upbringing. The author utilizes Leslie’s more proper discourse to contrast Jess’ rough dialogue. This further emphasizes their difference in education level; Leslie has been brought up with a wealthy family, giving her a better level of schooling and more experiences that Jess. While Jess uses words like “gonna,” “c’mon” and “gotta,” Leslie typically avoids contractions and uses a wider vocabulary. The two characters have distinct voices that are easily distinguished from one another. Paterson also uses Jess’ dialogue to reveal his low self-esteem and belief that he is an outsider; where other children would have multiple responses, Jess will have clipped, short replies. This is clearly seen when Leslie first attempts to befriend him while he is milking the cows; she practically has to force him to say even a few words to her (Paterson, Bridge 22). Even a small consistency like this one tells us more about the character than a paragraph-long monologue.  

Dialogue and relationships may aid in creating a realistic character, but more is needed; Paterson breathes life into the protagonist largely through Jess’ reactions. First and foremost, it is understood that Jess is a typical boy of about twelve: he picks on his little sisters, wants to maintain his pride, and craves approval from those around him (Paterson, Bridge 6, 34). His reactions to events are not glamorized or impractical; he looks at the world a certain way and responds accordingly. This is especially evident when we see Jess’ reaction to Leslie’s death: “Something whirled around inside Jess’s head. He opened his mouth, but it was dry and no words came out. He jerked his head from one face to the next for someone to help him” (Paterson, Bridge 131). Jess acts as any boy his age would: by immediately looking to his parents to fix the problem. However, Leslie’s demise is something his parents are unable to repair; they can only help their son through the grieving process. Paterson even takes us along with Jess through the five stages of grief. We watch as he calls his family liars, as he hits his sister, as he blames himself, as he loses touch with reality, and as he finally accepts the truth with his father’s and teacher’s help (Paterson, Bridge 131-148). This makes Bridge to Terabithia especially poignant because Katherine Paterson touches on a subject that is very real without turning it into something overly didactic. We need only empathize with Jess to comprehend what he learns: his best friend may have died, but the lessons she taught him live on.

Connecting Character Traits to Action and Tension

Jess Aarons is no angel, but he becomes palpable to us because he is consistent and illustrates both positive and negative traits. He has low self-esteem, is not overly intelligent at the beginning of the novel (mostly due to a lack of educational stimuli), and can be too proud for his own good. On the other hand, Jess is creative, open-minded, a quick learner, loyal, and self-reflective. Paterson clues readers into these main characteristics and feelings from the get-go through Jess’ home life, thereby also establishing Jess’ controlling belief and main desire. The novel opens with Jess training to become the fastest runner in the school so that his little sister May Belle could say “[h]er brother was the fastest, the best” and so that his father would be proud (Paterson, Bridge 5). This dream contrasts to Jess’ real relationship with his family, which seems based on how many chores he can get done correctly without bothering his parents. Therefore, readers glean that Jess’ controlling belief—the belief that pushes him into action—is that his family does not respect him (Appelt). When Terabithia is introduced another controlling motivation begins to surface: that Jess does not have the bravery necessary for a king (Paterson, Bridge 50). These motivations feed into Jess’ main desires, which are to have someone’s respect and to be worthy of his kingship.   

Jess’ traits impact his reactions and decisions, making him an active character that advances the plot. While passive characters have events happen to them, active characters make things happen, manifesting both tension and character development (Appelt). After Leslie leaves every boy at the school races in her dust, Jess eventually realizes his inability to befriend the girl is rooted in his hurt pride. Because of this self-reflection and his desire for a respectful relationship (his traits), he decides to become friends. Paterson writes, “He felt there in the teacher’s room that it was the beginning of a new season in his life, and he chose deliberately to make it so” (Bridge 39). Similarly, Jess continues swinging across the overflowing river to Terabithia even when he knows it is dangerous because he wants to maintain the respect that Leslie has for him (Paterson, Bridge 115). Jess’ traits and desires fuel his decisions.

Jess’ character arc is tied to the story’s tension; each obstacle is an opportunity for Jess to grow and to keep the readers engaged. Writer and professor Cynthia Leitich Smith says in her lecture “Magic, Myths, and Metaphors” that character is plot. Katherine Paterson takes this statement and illustrates how it is done. When bully Janice Avery takes May Belle’s Twinkies, for instance, Jess decides to follow Leslie’s and May Belle’s decision for revenge. The choice has nothing to do with the deliciousness of Twinkies and the blasphemy involved in stealing someone else’s sweets; it is based on his fear of looking like a coward in front of the two people who look up to him—again, reverting to his controlling beliefs and desires (Paterson, Bridge 62-3). All the while, the readers are wondering if Janice will discover Jess’ and Leslie’s plotting and beat them to a pulp. Every major conflict in the novel works in this way; Jess makes a decision influenced by his hopes and fears, the choice puts him in a sticky situation, and he grows as a result of its consequences. In the particular example with Janice, Jess discovers that her father beats her on a regular basis and the entire school knows about it. From this information, he learns that there may be a small, sliver of a heart even in the meanest bully (Paterson, Bridge 96-97). As a result, he is able to feel empathy for a person he once despised. He grows.

One of the most interesting things in Bridge to Terabithia is Jess’ growth. He and Leslie develop as the story progresses. As they do so, we become more attached to Leslie right along with Jess. We see her beautiful, graceful run. We listen to her poetic language and see her joy at sharing books. And we recognize the transformation she ignites in Jess—even if he cannot until she dies. Margaret Bechard explains in her lecture on scenes that it is a writer’s job is to try to make the main character give up. This is not only because it creates conflict, but also because—as Kurt Vonnegut points out—“No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, [a writer should] make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of” (“Kurt”). What worse thing could happen to a twelve-year-old child than to lose his best friend? And the readers feel Jess’ heartache because they grow to love Leslie, too. But the development elicited from the tragedy is what truly illustrates who Jesse is: a boy who can love enough to share his entire, secret world with his little sister (Paterson, Bridge 163). His final transformation is a consequence of loss.

Do you see how all of these things are connected? Paterson uses positive and negative traits, controlling beliefs, and desires to create a well-rounded, believable character. She then uses those characteristics to affect his decisions, which creates tension and fosters character development. The chart below shows the relationships between these ideas:



Positive: creative, open-minded, loyal, ability to self-reflect, quick learner

Negative: low self-esteem (especially concerning family), intelligence from lack of stimuli, pride

CONTROLLING BELIEF: His family does not respect him/gutless
MAIN DESIRE: The respect of someone he cares about, confidence in self/bravery
ASSOCIATED REACTIONS/DECISIONS: 1.       Befriending Leslie—decision based on self-reflection

2.       Revenge on Janice—decision based on pride and loyalty to Leslie and May Belle

3.       Finding a Christmas present for Leslie—decision based on loyalty

4.       Helping Bill with the house and becoming comfortable with him—decision based on loyalty, self-reflection, and Bill’s role as a confidence-booster

5.       Swinging across the river when it gets high—decision based on loyalty and pride

6.       Saving May Belle on the bridge—decision based on loyalty and pride

7.       Allowing May Belle to become part of Terabithia—decision based on loyalty and newfound characteristics that resulted from growth


TENSION RELATED TO REACTIONS/DECISIONS: 1.       Leslie obviously wants to become friends. Why doesn’t Jess?

2.       Will Janice catch them?

3.       Jess has very little money, but he wants to show Leslie how much he cares. Will he be able to?

4.       Why doesn’t Jess like Bill? Will he be able to get over this feeling?

5.       Will someone fall into the river?

6.       Will Jess have the courage to save his sister?

7.       Has Jess grown enough to understand his and Leslie’s Terabithia is something to be shared? Will he let anyone see into his heart as he did Leslie?


CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT AS A RESULT OF REACTIONS/DECISIONS 1.       Jess learns to open up to a friend.

2.       Jess learns that there is oftentimes more to a story than he knows.

3.       Jess realizes how much Leslie means to him because he wants to get her a wonderful gift.

4.       Jess realizes he is jealous of Bill’s relationship with Leslie.

5.       Jess learns that sometimes fatal tragedies occur, and that it is no one’s fault.

6.       Jess realizes he does have guts.

7.       FINAL TRANSFORMATION: Jess discovers that the gift Leslie gave him—Terabithia—is more an idea than a place, and that the beauty of such a world should be shared. He also realizes that he should open his heart to others as Leslie did to him.


By the time Leslie passes away, the readers are so connected to Jess that we experience the loss as well. Everything in this story is woven together. Plot is character. Character is tension. And character is what breaks your heart when Jess is left alone.

The Terabithia in Jess

Terabithia is supposedly a magical kingdom in the wood behind Leslie’s and Jess’ houses, but it is also symbolic of the main protagonist’s growth. Jess initially steps into Terabithia hesitantly. He does not have the dialect of a king, and he is afraid of travelling too deep into the woods. As he and Leslie become closer, however, he gains confidence in himself. He quits worrying about what his family thinks of him or Leslie and looks forward to his explorations into Terabithia. When he crosses into that kingdom, he takes on all the qualities of a true king; he becomes tall, proud, and wise. Eventually, Jess is even able to face the possibility of losing some of Leslie’s respect when he decides not to go into Terabithia for a day (Paterson, Bridge 50-59, 119). It is after Leslie’s demise when Jess grows so much that he begins to internalize Terabithia. Paterson writes, “Now it occurred to him that perhaps Terabithia was like a castle where you came to be knighted. After you stayed for a while and grew strong you had to move on. [. . .] Now it was time for him to move out. [. . .] It was up to him to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength” (Bridge 160-161). At this point, he understands that Terabithia is not simply a place, and that it is something that should be shared.

In her article paralleling her life experiences with those in her writing, Katherine Paterson discusses Terabithia. She explains that it can become a part of ourselves if we only will let it in:

When children ask me now, “Where is Terabithia?,” I try to explain that for most of us it starts out as a place outside ourselves—a tree, a hideout in the woods, a corner of our backyards, the springhouse on our uncle’s farm. As we grow older, however, it becomes a place inside ourselves into which we may go. But the change from an outside Terabithia to an inner one doesn’t happen accidentally, I remind them. If you want an inner Terabithia when you are fifty, you must begin to build it now. (Paterson, “Where”)

She shows this transformation in Jess.

Conclusion: Paterson’s Personal Experiences in Bridge to Terabithia

 I want to wrap up my investigation into Katherine Paterson’s amazing craft by discussing something An Na said in a lecture at residency: “If you don’t care enough to bleed, I won’t care enough to read.” During my research, I discovered that Paterson’s inspiration for Bridge to Terabithia came from a real life event. Lisa Hill, her son David’s best friend, was struck by lightning when he was eight years old. The novel was Paterson’s way of trying to make sense of the tragedy. Terabithia itself evolved from Paterson’s childhood, in which she moved often. During that time, she would find her own secret places to deal with the pressures of a new home (Paterson, “Katherine”). Because of this, her stories are oftentimes didactic in a subtle, but all-too-real way. She writes what she has learned, and insists that literary works should not be substituted for solutions, but that readers “go within themselves to listen to the sounds of their own hearts” (qtd. in Chaston). All of these emotions were poured into the characters in Bridge to Terabithia, breathing life and realism into the story.    

It is from truly opening our eyes to the wonders, emotions, and senses of the world that authors are able to create domains and individuals of their own. A bit of every author can be seen in his or her books. In the case of Bridge to Terabithia, readers glean the pain its author felt when her son lost his best friend. We all have our own Terabithia, but Katherine Paterson was kind enough to share hers with the world.




Works Cited

*Please note: As this was written a few years ago, this works cited utilizes MLA 7 and is not updated to MLA 8 conventions.

Appelt, Kathi. “Character in a Matter of Pages.” Vermont College of Fine Arts.     Montpelier, Vermont. July 2005. Lecture.

Bechard, Margaret. “Scene and Sequel.” Vermont College of Fine Arts. Montpelier, Vermont. 13 Jan. 2015. Lecture.

Brooks, Regina. Writing Great Books for Young Adults. Naperville: Sourcebooks, 2009.     Print.

Chaston, Joel D. “The Other Deaths in Bridge to Terabithia.” Children’s Literature     Association Quarterly 16.4 (1991): n. pag. Project MUSE. Web. 29 Jan. 2015.

“Kurt Vonnegut: 8 Basics of Creative Writing.” Gotham Writers. Gotham Writers           Workshop Inc, 2015. Web. 29 Jan. 2015.

Na, An. “Enter the Dragon: The Marriage of Voice & Structure.” Vermont College of         Fine Arts. Montpelier, Vermont. 12 Jan. 2015. Lecture.

Paterson, Katherine. Bridge to Terabithia. New York: HarperEntertainment-                      HarperCollins, 2006. Print.

—. “Katherine Paterson Interview Transcript.” Scholastic. Scholastic Inc., 2015. Web.           27 Jan. 2015.

—. “Where is Terabithia?” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 9.4 (1984): n. pag.      Project MUSE. Web. 29 Jan. 2015.

Smith, Cynthia Leitich. “Magic, Myths, and Metaphors.” Vermont College of Fine Arts.         Montpelier, Vermont. 11 Jan. 2015. Lecture.