To help my students develop the characters in their stories, I’ve had them focus on making characters that seem like real people. My theory is that if students can create full, well-developed characters in their minds, then when those characters encounter a problem, they will react in realistic ways.
We started with collecting a bunch of portraits from Flickr, using an advanced search that was restricted to Creative Commons content . We added these to our Pinterest account, so we could watch and learn from each other. There was a great buzz, as students discovered new potential characters. For several months we have been working on finding Writer’s Notebook “seeds”, and many students greatly enjoyed using images they found on the internet. So, using Pinterest fit nicely into what they were already familiar with.
Once we had a bank of photos to choose from, we each selected a portrait that we wanted to develop into a full character. I created an A3 sized worksheet (see below), based on Laura Cushing’s excellent list of questions (Note: I removed or altered some of the questions to make them more appropriate for elementary students). As this was the first time we did the activity, I preselected questions I thought my students would be able to answer without too much difficulty, however, in the future I’m going to experiment with asking my students to chose their own questions.
Students then presented their characters to the class. I went first, assuming the role of my character and inviting my students to ask me questions. I stayed in character, telling them that my mother had died of breast cancer when I was a teenager, and accusing them of being insensitive for eating meat and not being vegetarians. Once my turn was over, it took no convincing to get a student to present her character to the class, and one by one my students took turns presenting and interviewing each other. In being interviewed, I discovered that most students learned/created more details about their characters’ lives, so once their interview was over, I invited them to find a quiet place in the class and record any new information.
As this was the first time I have taught narrative writing in this way, I was surprised by how immersive it was for them. They had no problem “becoming” their characters. Some of them had back stories that were quite elaborate, such as the boy who described how his character was a teen runaway, working as a logger, who left his family a few years ago after a messy divorce which lead to his father attacking him with a baseball bat. Wow, eh?