One beloved feature of the holiday season is the familiar stories we tell. It is framed by songs, books, movies, religious practices, and the unique family stories we cherish. And every one of these centers on a character or group of characters.
Understanding characters is central to comprehending fiction and much of non-fiction. It is so central, it is included in the common core standards and many of the state standards that preceded these.
As a fiction author, I do not have a viable story idea until I have envisioned a character. In fact, much of my fiction comes to me in the form of a character first.
Here is a Language Arts Lesson to help you teach this important skill.
Character Analysis Exercise: Discuss and Instruct
For this exercise, instruct your students to think of a favorite holiday character, from any form of media. There’s Rudolf and Frosty from songs, Ebenezer Scrooge from classic literature and movies, and the iconic figures of the religious practices in which the holiday season is rooted. Many of the characters appear in multiple stories. Invite your students to share, and honor the choices of every one
Discuss the ways creators help their audiences understand the characters that make their stories meaningful.
How the character looks—both the basics of the physical appearance we are born with and the things we have control of, like hair style, clothing, and accessories, reveals character. However, like the old adage about books and covers, a character cannot be fully understood by appearance alone.
What the character does—our behavior reveals far more about us than does our appearance. How does a character carry herself? How does he relate to others? What does she like to do? What does he hate to do? How does this character choose to invest his or her time?
What the character says—what we say reveals far more than the information we want to convey. It can reveal where we are from, our degree of interest, our attitudes, our moods, how we feel about the people we are interacting with and more. Even what a character doesn’t say can be revealing.
As we move “inward,” the character tells become more and more significant.
How a character thinks—our thought patterns, like what we say and do, reveals a great deal about us, and in characterization, this is where things can get really interesting. A character can speak and act one way, while carrying on an inner thought process that can stray so far as to even be contradictory. Our thoughts also reveal our general attitudes toward life—optimistic, pessimistic, cynical, enthusiastic—which in turn colors what we do and say. So, too, with characters.
How a character feels—this one is two-pronged. How does the character feel, physically, and how does the character feel, emotionally? Is she fit and healthy? Has he been injured, or does he experience a chronic illness? Our responses to how we feel color what we say or do and impact our overall attitude.
How a character feels emotionally—a fully rounded character experiences joys and sorrows, trials and challenges and has done so during the phases of their “lives” that occurred outside the framework of their story. These, too, impact behavior and choices. An intriguing or beloved character is never perfect. Furthermore, characters rarely live in a vacuum. As they work their stories out, they interact with others. They have good days, bad days, and many people in their lives. Who do they love? Who do they tolerate? Who do they loathe? This impacts how they react to and treat secondary characters. It also reveals who they are as a person.
Discuss a character from a story previously read by the class to analyze each of the above features and list class findings on the board as they come up.
Pass out the handout.
Instruct your students to give an example (or two or three—whatever you feel your students are ready for) for each of the ways creators make their characters seem real.
Another way to use the handout is to have the students work in small groups or pairs. If this approach is chosen, you could have each group present their finished analysis to the class using the document camera. This would allow you to assess for speaking standards as well.
A Step Farther
Use this character handout for the springboard to a creative writing assignment. Instruct students create a character, and then assign a short story written about this character.
Who is one of your favorite holiday characters? What qualities or traits make you love him or her?