Unlocking the writer inside: Letting your reader meet your characters

In the last blog I discussed encouraging young writers to ask questions of the world to prompt stories.

Now we’ll fill those stories with people, because you need someone to care about in a story and you also need a baddie!

Wolf Notes is the second book in my First Aid for Fairies series, so in the early chapters I re-introduced old friends and also brought in new characters. I didn’t want to have to tell the readers:

  • This is Helen - a talented musician and a vet’s daughter, with very unusual friends. She’s clever, brave and sensible.
  • This is Sylvie - a girl who turns into a wolf. She’s dangerous and rude.
  • This is Yann – a centaur, who is arrogant but loyal.

I don’t want to tell the readers all that. I want them to work it out for themselves.  Creative writing teachers and editors call this “Show not Tell” which means don’t write “she is brave”, write “when the wolf growled she didn’t back away.” Let the reader get to know the character, rather than just handing them a description.

You can create characters in the classroom, either building on characters in stories the pupils are already writing, or creating new characters who might prompt stories of their own.

It’s useful, when creating characters, to list descriptions and attributes: Dark hair, brown eyes or green scales, long claws;Brave and loyal or cruel and greedy.

Then you must bring those biographies to life, rather than just cut and paste them straight into the story.

So, here’s are some exercises to do in the classroom:

  • Everyone can create a list of half a dozen facts about their character (goodie or baddie) then come up with a way of showing each of those character traits, rather than telling it. If Sally is kind, write a scene where Sally does something kind. If Robert is greedy, write a conversation where he says something greedy (the tricky thing is to make these scenes and conversations genuinely part of the story, moving the plot along, rather than extra scenes artificially stuck on).   
    • You could also consider another question about characters: Do you have to like your characters? Do you need a character in a story which the reader will like?  Someone the reader will sympathise with and root for? In fact, should all your characters be nice?
  • As a group, try to invent a story where every single character is kind, gentle and sensible.
    • Is it possible to make that story exciting? Do you care about all the characters? Or are they a bit too perfect and boring?
  • Now think of a story where every character is cruel, greedy and selfish.
    • Is that story exciting and interesting? Do you care about the characters? Who would you root for? Whose story would it be?

Now that I’ve challenged myself as a writer, I can think of plots with only nice people which might be exciting. For example, a minibus full of sweet, polite P6 pupils caught in the lava flow of a suddenly erupting volcano - but I suppose the volcano is the baddie in that! I’m finding it a bit harder to care about the classroom of trainee villians who I've thought of to star in the second plot - but I’m sure your pupils could work something out!

After all that, you might decide a writer needs a mix of nice and nasty – both in the cast of characters, and possibly even within any individual character.

Questions to ask about a character

What is their favourite hobby?

Who is their best friend?

What is he/she afraid of?

What does she/he want more than anything else?

Would you want to be their friend?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then don’t list these facts in your story, find ways to show them!

This blog is part two in a series of blogs about creative writing from author Lari Don. Click here to see the full series!

Lari Don

Lari Don is an award-winning children’s writer who writes novels, picture books, retellings of old folklore and novellas for reluctant readers. She also works in schools and libraries with children of all ages, sharing her passion for stories and encouraging children to write their own. Check out her child-friendly writing blog at www.laridon.co.uk/blog or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.