Thursday, November 3, 2016

Sentence Strips & Dossiers: Writing Characters that Ring True

"If you don't know your characters really well, can you really expect your reader to care about what happens to them?"

I posed this question to my students today. After reflecting on the characters we love in books that we've read, we all agreed: the authors had to have known their characters pretty well to write them so convincingly. The characters are a huge part of what makes readers invest in a story.

Though we started this work yesterday with scene boot camp, I knew I needed to give my students time to continue getting to know their characters. For workshop today, I threw out a few options:

The Dossier 
Sometimes, a sweeping overview of a character can help solidify who they are. Since some students like the simple organization of a table when planning their characters, I offered up an easy graphic organizer for them to record their character's:

  • Appearance
  • Personality traits
  • Likes/dislikes
  • Strengths/weaknesses
  • Habits and hobbies
  • Motivation (hopes, dreams & desires)

I modeled with my own characters, noting that I tried to get pretty specific with my character development.

Beginning phases of my character development. Sharing my process with students is valuable.
We talked about traits that make characters noteworthy: quirks, habits, and more that make them memorable. Hashing out these details gives students a starting point and a clearer picture of what sort of character they're drawing for their story.

Situation Strips
Another approach that I offered up to students was to imagine what their characters would do in a variety of situations. I created a little strip to glue into their journals with several scenarios like receiving a failing grade, getting caught in a lie, or having to comment on a friend's disastrous haircut. Students could jot what they thought their character would do next to some or all of the scenarios.

My situation strip brainstorming
Though the proposed situations might not appear in their planned stories, thinking about how their characters would react helps students develop complex characters with varied personalities. This work will shine through when they start drafting--their knowledge of their character will aid them in crafting stories that hold meaning for their readers.

The Pro Approach
One of my students showed me Rick Riordan's tips for developing a character. Similar to the dossier approach, Riordan strives to record the most minute, miniscule details about his characters. Again, even though every detail might not show up in the story, the knowledge helps develop stronger characters.

Before they went off to workshop today, I reminded students how valuable taking the time to do this work is for writers. While many of my students are anxious to start telling their stories, taking the time to draw and refine their characters will ensure that, when we do start drafting, they feel confident in writing a story that includes characters that will draw in their readers.

And if they feel confident, great writing will follow.

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