“I always begin with a character or characters, and then try to think up as much action for them as possible.” –John Irving
“If a writer is true to his characters they will give him his plot.” — Phyllis Bottome
“You can never know enough about your characters.” — W. Somerset Maugham
Though fiction writers can and do start anywhere with fiction, it is perhaps best to focus on character; for it is the actions and reactions of characters that shape the plot of a story.
Below are several ways you can begin to help children build an understanding of character in the books they read and the stories they write (based on Graves, 1994):
- Examine characters in literature: ask students to analyze the characters in a fiction book you are reading aloud or in books they are reading themselves. Why do these characters act the way they do? What do they want? How would students describe the characters’ personalities? Cause and effect relationships are strong in good fiction. One thing leads to another. And the things that happen to a character happen because of the way that character is : because Wilbur was desperately lonely, he made friends with a spider. Because the spider was intelligent and caring (and a good spinner), she was able to come up with a plan to save Wilbur’s life.
- Create a character in front of the class: “I’m thinking about a little girl I observed in my dentist’s office the other day. She was wearing a clean, well-pressed dress, and she seemed polite and well-behaved. I think I’ll call her Angelica; it seems like the right name for her. For my story, I’ll make her well-behaved and neat all the time. She thinks that’s the way she needs to be to have others like her. Her daddy calls her his little princess. Her teacher compliments her because she’s such a good worker, and so quiet. But Angelica gets angry sometimes, and then she wishes she didn’t have to be a princess. Most of the kids in Angelica’s classroom like her, except this one girl, who’s kind of jealous…”
- Choose a situation that will reveal your character and write a short piece of fiction. (Note: You may wish to try this at home before you try it with children.) Picture a scene in which your character can reveal herself:
- Help children see what questions they can ask themselves (and each other) to develop a character: Choose a character, say a little about him or her, then tell children they can ask questions to learn more about the character.
Me: My name is Mary and I’m eleven years old and in a new school in the fifth grade. I wish I wasn’t so shy. I’d like make friends with Amy.
Child: How come you’re so shy?
Me: I don’t know. I just always have been. When I was a toddler Mom said I used to hide behind the couch every time the doorbell rang.
Child: Why do you want Amy for a friend?
Me: Amy is smart, and she knows lots about horses. I like horses too.
Child: Then why don’t you just start a conversation about horses with her?
Me: I tried once, but I was interrupted by Susan, who is Amy’s best friend. I don’t think Susan likes me.
Child: Why don’t you think Susan likes you?
At the end of this mini-lesson ask children to tell you everything they know about Mary so far. Then read a short passage of fiction by a professional author and ask children to tell you everything they found out about the author’s character. What does the author’s character want? What does the character know? What kinds of questions might the author have been asking herself while developing her character?
Later, in a follow-up lesson, ask children to take fiction books they are reading and make a list of things they know about their characters, again paying special attention to what their characters know and want. This focus on characters’ knowing and wanting is critical to developing an understanding of character motivation–to being able to answer the question: “Why did he do that?
- Create the beginnings of a piece of fiction, letting children decide the elements that go into the story. Ask questions that help children come up with story information. Graves says he often begins with the action or plot of the story, since children are more familiar with plot, then takes them back to characters later:
Me: We are going to create the beginnings of a story together. I’m going to ask questions, and you’re going to decide what happens, who the characters are, etc. The things that happen will cause other things to happen so that our story makes logical sense. We’ll do this so we can see the kinds of questions fiction authors ask themselves, the kinds of decisions they have to make. What kind of story shall we write?
Child: How about a mystery?
Me: Okay. What’s the mystery?
Child: Somebody got murdered.
Me: That’s one possibility. How about a couple others?
Child: A bank robbery. Someone stole some money.
Child: A stolen diamond necklace.
Me: Okay. We have three possible problems: a murder, a bank robbery, and a stolen diamond necklace. Let’s take a vote on these…okay, looks like the diamond necklace won.
Next, we’ll take some time to develop characters. Your questions should challenge students to expand their thinking:
Me: Tell me about the person who lost the necklace.
Child: She’s a snobby, rich lady.
Me: Why is she snobby and rich?
Child: She thinks she’s better than everybody else, because she has maids and everything. She’s rich because her husband is the president of a big computer company.
Me: You say she thinks she’s better than everybody else. How does she act toward other people?
Child: She’s rude. Especially to her maids. She says nasty things and is really picky. Like she makes them do their work over if she thinks they didn’t do it good enough.
Me: Hmm. I wonder how other people feel about her?
Child: Nobody likes her. Especially this one maid she’s always picking on. Her husband doesn’t like her either. He wants to divorce her, but she won’t let him.
From the above exchange, you can see how this kind of questioning leads to information on all aspects of the story: uncovering suspects with motives to steal the necklace, revealing information on setting, supplying additional plot action, etc.
A final reflection, a truthful admission, and an important caution:
Creating a character–and the larger task of composing a work of fiction–is rarely as straightforward as the above “exercises” might lead you to believe. There is an element of trial and error, of groping around, that usually precedes the drawing up of a workable character. For example, “Angelica” has not sprung to life as easily as the mini-lesson examples I’ve given above might leave you believing. The first draft of the story–which took me eight hours to compose–went nowhere and I dumped it, keeping only the name of the main character. Realizing I had only a vague understanding of what I wanted Angelica’s character to be like, I decided to freewrite to try to find an answer to the question What does Angelica want? While freewriting I also wrote down questions that came into my mind. I came up with three different, roughly-worded responses and then chose the one that appealed to me the most:
“Is Angelica expected to act sweet (reflected by her name). Perhaps she resents that her parents and brother won’t let her show the anger she feels. They tell her she shouldn’t feel what she feels. Tease her–’That’s not like my sweet little princess.’ She restrains herself each time until the end [of the story]?”
In the midst of writing the story, I decided that Angelica was the one who held unreasonable expectations of herself–expectations that were perhaps unwittingly reinforced by her parents and others. I decided to drop the brother (who’d been in the first draft) and added a classmate, Gina, an antagonist. Ultimately, what Angelica wants is to be herself, and to claim all of her feelings, the good and the “bad.”
If I had done more preliminary thinking and pre-writing, could I have avoided the false start and the loss of those eight hours on an unworkable first draft? I’m not so sure. Sometimes those false starts give me valuable information about what my story in NOT about and help to point me in a more profitable direction. Children will also make false starts. Our role as teachers is to help them–with our questioning and modeling–to move beyond those false starts to find the true starting points of their stories.
P.S. Some children may find it helpful to clip a picture of an (anonymous) person from a magazine, or make a drawing, to represent a character they want to write about. The picture acts as a visual stimulus that can help them begin to imagine a character’s personality.
For further information, read chapter 18 “Help Children Read and Write Fiction” in A Fresh Look at Writing by Donald Graves ( pp. 287-304). Two other excellent resources include Ralph Fletcher’s What a Writer Needs, and Marion Dane Bauer’s What’s Your Story?
CHARACTER SKETCH WORKSHEET
TO KEEP IN MIND: The main character must grow, change, learn something about him/herself, other people or life through the events of the story.
Physical characteristics (eyes, hair, coloring, build, mannerisms):
Feelings about other characters:
From the Writing Curriculum Files of Children’s Author, Suzanne Williams www.suzanne-williams.com