After teaching students how to organize and focus their writing, I felt good about myself until I took a look at the short stories they wrote. Littered with cardboard characters with unimaginative and unrealistic lives, their stories made me want to ram a lit cigeratte between my thumb and forefinger. Seconds before my skin caught fire, a thought came to mind. I put out the cigarette, canceled my poetry extravaganza, called my wife, and told her I’d be home late.
I had work to do. I had to find out about teaching characterization. Here’s what I came up with.
They already knew the elements of characterization--direct description, dialogue, what others say, what the character says and thinks–but that didn’t seem to translate into effective implementation of the elements of characterization. Teaching characterization required something more. It required basic grammar.
- Instruct students to fold a slice of paper lengthwise in fours.
- Draw a line down each crease and one across the top.
- Label each column as follows: adjectives, nouns, adverbs, verbs.
- Choose a character from a familiar literary source.
- Complete the character grid on the board and discuss.
- Discuss that characters in a story must come alive for the reader. They must first come alive for the writer
Before beginning this activity, emphasize the connection between characters in the stories written by the masters and the need for them to duplicate the process in their own stories.
- Place students in pairs.
- Instruct them to exchange rough drafts.
- After reading their partner’s story, he or she should complete the premade grid on two characters from the story.
- Return the rough draft with the grids.
- Ask students if their characters demonstrated the characteristics intended.
- Ask students if their words gave a true portrayal of the character and if they know anyone in real life like that. If the answer is no, it’s time to revise.
- Instruct students to make the necessary changes, first, on the grid.
- Revisit the rough draft and add or delete necessary passages in order to convey the intended character traits.
- Suggest using dialogue if writers are stuck.
- After revisions, have partners read the revised version.
- Share good ones with the class and solicit comments.
*This lesson has been adapted from Susan Geye’s Mini Lessons for Revision, 1997.
This post is part of the series: Style: It’s What Quality Writers Possess
Neophyte writers assume style comes naturally. That’s why they have none. Style occurs no more naturally in writing than it does in fashion or music. It’s a deliberate creation of the stylist combined with serendipitous discovery while engaged in the creative process. It can be taught.