Magdalen College School Master Helen Pike explains the importance of perseverance.

Each half term at Magdalen College School we focus on a different “disposition” or habit of mind, and this half term’s is perseverance. Cue collective groans from the school...

If dispositions were seasons, perseverance would be winter. As St Paul said, perseverance is what suffering teaches us. Its closest relative is the much more fashionable resilience. Of all our dispositions, perseverance is the hardest to “sell.”

We had a much easier time exciting our pupils about the value of independence. If independence were a season, it would be the summer, with all the light and freedom that invokes. How apt it is that Independence Day in the US and Bastille Day in France both fall in July.

When I spoke to the whole school about perseverance, I took as my starting-point a dire warning from chaplain about the shallowness of wearing designer brands in order to assert our individuality and bolster our sense of our own importance. Let’s imagine that perseverance is an accessory – a pair of shoes, perhaps. Perseverance would be a pair of hiking boots: serviceable, necessary even, but not giving off the kind of effortless aura of sophisticated adulthood that being independent beings to mind.

But the shoe analogy is not a good one, because the whole point of perseverance is that it is not something we can put on or take off at our leisure.

Think for a moment of your favourite book or film. One of my many coping strategies when times feel tough is to ensure that I spend some time with my nose in a book. Reading is often described as an escape, and of course in many ways it is: reading before bed cleanses our minds of the clutter of the day and gives our overstimulated brains a single focus before we fall asleep. Even readers of fantasy books will recognise that however much the story and setting might provide an escape, what keeps us reading are the characters.

Last summer I read a fascinating book called The Bestseller Code. The book is the product of research into the plots of thousands of bestselling books in the English language, and from their research the authors have created an algorithm which they say predicts which books will resonate most with readers.

Whatever the genre, what great stories tend to have in common is they contain characters who overcome adversity. The authors of The Bestseller Code can plot successful character development as the story unfolds on a graph which contains a series of peaks and troughs. Analysis of successful Hollywood films has produced similar graphs. In successful books and films, these peaks and troughs all roughly evenly spaced before the story reaches a conclusion. There is usually one overarching goal or quest, but the journey towards that is broken down into a series of setbacks which the main character must navigate.

In short, what defines central characters is...their perseverance. Imagine the Harry Potter series if Harry had refused to stand up to his wicked relatives the Dursleys and thought “You know what? I’ll ignore Hagrid, I won’t fulfil my destiny and go to Hogwarts, I’ll stay in the cupboard under the stairs instead.”

What kind of tale would the Odyssey be, if Odysseus had frolicked forever with princess Nausikka rather than continuing his long journey home to his wife Penelope?

Discussion of characters leads to reflection on character. As St Paul went on to say, perseverance is character, and character is hope. And what now if not a time of hope for better days to come?

Art does not always mirror life, but when it comes to perseverance, it does. What keeps us reading also keeps us going.