Character studies

24th March 2000 at 00:00
Pie Corbett shows how photographs of real people can help children write convincing portraits.

A well-chosen photo can trigger a story in a way that asking children to invent a character can never hope to achieve. Exhorting young children to "imagine" only works for the minority. Most young writers need something more concrete, something to look at, in order to conjure life into their characters.

Of course, their ideas will be built upon characters from other stories, from television and their own lives. This is fine. Writing a story does not mean that you have to invent something new every time. Most writers call upon their own experiences of people they know to make a composite character. Of course, trying to capture real people is a daunting task. How could I ever describe my mother? The answer is not to try, just steal one or two details that reflect who she is and leave it at that.

Let the children choose aphoto. Images of old people, a sharp-looking adult, or a child whose face holds expression, will trigger a rapid response. Who is this, what has just happened, what are they thinking?

Finding a suitable name or nickname can help to bring a character alive. Roald Dahl and JK Rowling chose names that illuminate character, such as Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker and Messrs Boggis, Bunce and Bean.

The key question is, how does your character feel, and why? You may need to brainstorm a menu of feelings and failings. Characters who are virtuous are difficult to depict; it's much easier to accept a main character with a flaw. Pupils should discuss with their partner what has just happened to make the character behave or feel like this and make a note. It can be useful to jot down one or two "special details" that say something about the character. The word "detail" is vital. Having brown hair is not really a facet that will help to bring a character alive. But wearing a pair of red leggings makes the character sound "showy" and perhaps rather fun. As Joan Aiken says, "details are a pleasure to read, and a pleasure to write. If you can pluck out some small common denominator or experience that will instantly register with the reader, you have made yourself a friend".

Show the children how to write an opening, bearing in mind how their main character feels. They could choose one of the most common story starters used by children's writers, which I call a "name" starter. Simply, the first line starts with the character's name. Supposing the story is to begin with the main character waking up. The opening lines will vary depending on how the character feels.

"Tom leapt out of the bed. He tugged on his clothes and bounded downstairs" tells us that Tom is feeling pretty chipper. However, "Jo struggled from her bed. She slowly dressed and trudged downstairs" tells us Jo is not a happy bunny. The secret is not to tell the reader how your character feels but to show it through what the character does and says. It avoids writing, "Tom woke up. He was excited. He went downstairs".

Children should keep looking at the photo to remind themselves of their character. They should be encouraged to pause and think: Now how is she feeling? So, what would she say? How would shesay that? What would she do? In shared writing, this can be encouraged by pausing at key points and discussing different reactions.

Pair children up so that the two different characters can meet and talk. Look at the pictures. Who would talk first? What would they think about the other person? What would they say? How? What would the reply be? This is a useful exercise as character is often shown through how people react to each other. This can be rehearsed orally, before writing takes place. Once the pair have written down their dialogue they should rehearse reading it aloud. This is the acid test of whether dialogue flows.

One further useful addition is to note down an expression that your main character uses. It is helpful to have your main character speak in a distinctive way so that the reader can instantly recognise who is speaking. So, we might write: Meta strode down the street in her new red leggings. "Well, I'm befuddled," she muttered, as she stared at the enormous crater.

To add a twist to a story halt pupils and ask them to swap images. The challenge is to pretend that wherever they are in the story a new character enters. Who are they? What will they say? What are they about to do? Do they bring bad news? This works especially well if the new character can act as a contrast to the main character, injecting dilemma into narrative.

At the end of the story the children should get used to looking back at their character and think about how heshe changed as a result of what happened. They can then make the character, or narrator, comment on what has happened, how feelings changed and what has been learned. For instance:

"Meta felt better already."

And if you have gone to all this trouble to develop a character it makes sense to write a series of stories using it. The young writer's fictional friend can then grow by becoming part of an historical narrative, and so too will the writing.


Give children a pair of pictures of people. Who is the "baddie" and who is the "goodie"?. Write down what each character would say if they met. Invent a particular way of speaking for the characters. In circle time include the new characters - invent a story-line and pass the story round. Begin with the "goodie" and, after a while, introduce the "baddie". This can help children introduce a sense of drama and dilemma into their narratives.


1. Picking out special detail.

He was a small ratty-faced man with grey teeth. His eyes were dark and quick and clever, like a rat's eyes, and his ears were slightly pointed at the top.

From The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar - Roald Dahl. Jonathan Cape, 1977.

2. How what is said reveals something about a character.

"Miss Beale said you would show me round, to look at the projects," said Andrew. "Why, do you want to copy one?" asked Victor, lifting a strand of hair and exposing one eye.

From Thunder and Lightnings - Jan Mark. Puffin, 1973.

3. Using an event to mirror what a character feels.

"Jem!" Arthy thundered. He brought the wooden spoon hard down on the table.

From The Piemaskers - Helen Cresswell. Faber, 1967.

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