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Character building

Crispin Andrews shows how to make descriptions of people come alive on the page

Good characters are crucial to any story, and the techniques professional authors use to breathe life into their creations can add interest to your pupils' writing. A child may know what a character is like in their own head, but transferring this to paper can be more difficult. To help develop this, I use the following ideas in class. The goal is for pupils to use what they have learnt in a piece of imaginative writing themselves.

Draw with words

Drawing a character from a written description, or describing in words what they see in a picture, helps hone children's observation. To start with, concentrate on physical appearances. A man with a ginger beard or a girl in green flip-flops is attention grabbing and the teacher can make obvious links to word or sentence-level work on adjectives.

What do we know about the appearance of this character? How does she feel about herself?

"She looked at herself in the wardrobe mirror and made a horrible face, baring a mouthful of teeth covered with a brace. Automatically she pushed her glasses into position, ran her fingers through her mouse-brown hair so that it stood wildly on end, and let out a sigh almost as noisy as the wind." A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (Puffin).


Describing the way in which characters move is a simple way of showing what they are thinking about. The impression conveyed by someone "striding purposefully" is different from "someone who shuffles nervously". Both tell us more than: "She walked down the street."

When creating characters, ask pupils to choose one or two physical features and fit these into an action-based sentence: "Not looking where he was going, Scoony tripped over his long tangly, ginger beard. As usual, he ended up in a heap on the floor." Or: "Imelda beamed proudly. Her new Day-Glo green flip-flops were just what she'd always wanted. She would look so cool at the end of term party."

How does Nina Bawden build up a picture of the two characters below?

"Frederick ate his meals with Mr Evans in the parlour and they were both fond of meat, liking it juicy and rare. Nick saw them one day when the door was left open, sitting with their elbows on the table and chewing their chops in their fingers. 'Blood running out of their mouths,'

he told Carrie. 'They're Carnivores, that's what they are.'" Carrie's War by Nina Bawden (Puffin).

The immediate reactions of characters shows their true colours. Ask pupils to read chapter two of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and see how JK Rowling builds the picture of Dudley Dursley as a spoilt brat. Dudley throws a tantrum when he discovers he has two fewer birthday presents than he received the previous year. Rowling also demonstrates how a single phrase can describe a character: "Dudley came waddling towards them as fast as he could... 'Out of the way you,' he said, punching Harry in the ribs."


Showing a person's thoughts and feelings can be more difficult. To start, ask the pupils to think about two friends who have been shopping and missed their bus home. One blames the other for taking too long in HMV, and so is refusing to speak to her. The other just wants to get home. You can use their contrasting attitudes in a little drama work to stimulate discussion - and later writing - about how the characters look and their feelings.

What does this extract from The Machine Gunners tell us about Chas's feelings?

"You can play anywhere else if you like. But not at the Nichol's house and that's final." Mr McGill vanished again behind the Daily Express. Mrs McGill went on with her ironing. Chas knew a brick wall when he saw one. But he also had a taste for getting round brick walls. Nicky's house had suddenly become the most desirable place on earth." The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall (Macmillan).

Get your pupils to introduce secondary characters who have opinions and make comments about the main characters. A good example can be found in Roald Dahl's Matilda. Headmistress Mrs Trunchbowl makes it clear she thinks Matilda is a troublemaker. As well as providing an insight into the head's character it sets up potential for conflict later on. Again, dramatic improvisation may provide further focus for children's work.

Conversation can help flesh out character. In this extract from The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman a brief snatch of dialogue shows important differences in the attitudes of the two speakers.

" 'I cooked' he said, 'so you can wash the dishes.' She looked incredulous. 'Wash the dishes?' she scoffed. 'There's millions of clean ones lying about! Anyway I'm not a servant. I'm not going to wash them.' 'Listen. I don't know how long we can stay in this place. We've got to eat so we'll eat what's here, but we'll tidy up afterwards and keep the place clean because we ought to. You wash these dishes. We've got to treat this place right.'"

Keep it brief

As pupils become more confident they should be encouraged to keep descriptive sentences brief - in short stories there isn't space for them. Look at this example from Anne Fine's The Granny Project: "Mrs Harris sat imperturbably, her snow white hair in a freshly washed shock around her wrinkled face." And later: "Everyone looked towards Mrs Harris. She was concentrating hard on her new teeth, which she found prone to slipping about inside her mouth, and carried on eating meat and potatoes."

Ask children to search through books for similar descriptive phrases and discuss how these are woven into the narrative.

Deeper thoughts

Some children may wish todig deeper into their characters'

behaviour. Ask them to pick a character from their own story and answer these questions. What would your characters do if:

* a fierce dog barked at them?

* someone called them a cruel name?

* they saw a robber escaping?

* someone asked what their favourite piece of music is?

* someone asked what their hobbies are?


Putting a character's comments, thoughts or feelings into a narrative addsinterest to children's writing. Take the following extracts, from the work of Year 6 pupils.

"Harriet paced irritably back and forth. 'This is all Jenny's fault,' she thought. 'She couldn't even afford that S Club-7 CD in the first place. Now we'll never get home!'"

"Mr Birki the landlord was happy. He knew it was rent day and he loved his money. But he also knew that his tenants would probably try and get out of paying as usual. They were so stingy, always making excuses."

Happy character building.

Crispin Andrews is a primary school teacher and education writer

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