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Sunday, April 22, 2018

I am happy to announce that my YA horror novel is now available in both ebook and paperback form from Amazon. Pick up a copy, then leave a review. You can also find me at FB and at Goodreads

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Creating Realistic Characters: Part 5

Dialogue. Talking. Musing. Conversations. These things are so simple to accomplish in real life, and yet so difficult in print. Why?

With the kids, I am going to talk about myself first, because being open with my students makes them comfortable. I ask them what they notice about me, and almost every student observes that I talk in complete sentences when given the choice between phrases and sentences. Yes, I do talk in complete sentences. This is directly related to my heritage, and to my relationship to the Autism spectrum.

They also notice that I often communicate with gestures, facial expressions, and body positions, rather than with words. That is directly related to teacher training. When I ask them if they are familiar with “proximity management” and then demonstrate how it works on some unsuspecting student, they all laugh.

I then follow that with a demonstration of “tone” using various inflections and word choices on volunteer “victims”. We subsequently practice an exercise where the students have to converse first in complete sentences, and then in phrases. They have to “act out” a scripted conversation with a table partner, and then they need to read a sentence using different tones for their deliveries. After all of that, we are ready to start the two-day session on dialogue.

Day 1

The kids have now seen the three primary aspects of dialogue: words, action, and tone.

We begin with the reminder that each new speaker begins a new paragraph, and we look at several exemplars from various novels to remind ourselves of dialog formatting and punctuation. Next, I tell the kids they are going to have their unlikeable characters ask for magic of some sort from their god character. They are going to write one paragraph. Often, they balk. 

“Ishtar, I ask you to grant me the power of flame spells to defeat Arg the Destroyer,” said Borok.

That is one paragraph if the god then replies.

“You have not yet proven yourself, human. Why should you be trusted with flame spells?” replied Ishtar.

We examine the sample sentences and discuss how they can be improved.

I tell the kids they need to find five different ways to have their unlikeable character ask for flame spells. They can use action beats to replace dialogue tags. I remind them to use the dialogue to reveal the character’s desire, personality, and to ideally expose something about the rationale driving the request. Here are a few examples from the exercise.

“Ishtar!” Borok drew himself to his full eight-foot height and loomed over the goddess. “You know I must have fire spells to defeat Arg the Destroyer. Give me the power!”

“Beautiful Ishtar,” pleaded Borok, “your strength and power are unmatched. Grant me the power of fire spells to defeat your nemesis, Arg the Destroyer.”

“Arg the Destroyer uses elemental air.” Borok paced, rubbing his forehead with his hand. He stopped and struck the stone wall. “I have it! Ishtar, grant me fire spells to turn his tornadoes against him.” Borok’s face crinkled into a wild-eyed smile.

They follow this with five possible responses from their god character.

Day 2

After looking at the work from the previous day, I see several things we need to cover in today’s class. Nearly every student used the name of the other character in every dialogue sentence they wrote. 

We start the day by examining passages from several novels. I tell the kids to find places where the author had the character speak the name of another character. There are very few of these incidents. They tend to occur when the speaker needs the attention of the other character, when a point is being stressed, or when possession is indicated.

Next, we revisit using action beats instead of dialogue tags. Only a handful of students tried writing action beats, so we spend about 15 minutes revising the sentences from yesterday to use action tags and remove names where they are not needed. The kids start to get excited when they see their own sentences moving from wooden statements to interactive dialogue.

Finally, we talk about descriptive adverbs. I believe they have their place in writing, particularly when used to convey where or when. The tricky aspect is when they are used to tell how something is done. Telling works well when the author is writing about normal everyday interactions the reader needs to know but not experience. Showing is the default narrative style in modern writing. 

We examine passages from Dickens (David Copperfield) and Wells (The War of the Worlds) to see how adverbs were used before the advent of cinematography. Now, these overly descriptive passages are unpopular, but the kids quickly understand why the authors wrote the way they did given the worlds in which they lived. The final task is for the kids to review their dialogue passages and integrate them with one paragraph of preceding narrative and one of subsequent narrative.

At the end of the period, we review the reasons for using dialogue in the first place: to reveal character, to move the story forward, to add conflict and tension, to impart information, and to show character relationships. The students will spend the next three days designing a plot for their myths.

Accordingly, the next three lessons will examine how to create a plot for a myth.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Creating Realistic Characters: Part 4

This is the difficult part of character development for tweens, and it is directly related to the way most of them see the world. Everything in their existence is usually seen through the filter of “me”, and that is developmentally appropriate.

While each child develops along his or her own trajectory, most students take some time to develop abstract thought including determining multiple possible outcomes beyond their own experience based on forming new ideas from known principles. They also often have trouble considering multiple points of view on a topic, particularly those that do not agree with their own initial views. Finally, metacognition is a new concept. Being aware of their own thinking processes as an observer of those processes is a new experience.

Helping students create a backstory for their characters actually helps students with cognitive development!

Family Dynamics

We begin by determining where the character lives, with whom he or she lives, the size of the family unit, and the relationship with each family member. To do this, we make a family tree for the character. Next to each family member is a brief biographical description of that family member including the relationship to the main character. We spend about twenty minutes exploring possible family dynamics.

Perhaps Dad is an absentee character. How does this affect the Main Character (MC)?
Perhaps Mom left the family when the MC was a baby. How does this affect the MC?
Both Mom and Dad may be present, but Grandpa may have needed to move in for extended care. What change did this have on the family dynamics for the MC?
If the MC is the youngest in the group, how do the older siblings treat the MC? Are there sibling rivalries? Is there a favorite child of the parents? Is there a favorite brother or sister of the MC?

Once the students have the family tree and relationships defined, I have them write a family dinner scene based on their work so far. Did someone cook the meal? Did someone order pizza delivery? Did someone get takeout food? Is each family member on his or her own for dinner? Do the family members sit at a table, go to their own individual spots to eat, or huddle in the den around a T.V.?

Eating together to “break bread” is one of the oldest of human interactions. It is, therefore, one of the easiest ways to explore abstract possibilities for relationships, because the students can imagine variations in the familiar routine. I have also found it to be the easiest way to have students imagine different points of view.

The next twist is to explore what would happen if the family was rich or if the family was very poor. This usually requires bringing in examples from literature and the popular press. A news article about a wealthy family with a private chef and servants provides a great contrast to my students’ home environments. Similarly, imagining a homeless family huddled in a tent under an overpass is eye-opening for many of my kids. Sadly, from time to time one of my students is homeless. If the student chooses to share what it is like to dine at an outreach facility, it can be a life-changing revelation for the rest of the class.

Life Experiences as Personality Shapers

We end the exercise by talking about the MC’s experiences. What happened to the MC to make him or her behave a particular way. What shaped the MC’s personality? How did the other family members (including pets) play into the MC’s mental outlook and opinions? The kids tend to really enjoy this conversation. They take notes on their characters' imagined experiences at the end of class.

Speaking of conversations, how does the MC talk? What does the MC’s dialogue sound like and why? Is the MC an introvert or an extrovert? Is the MC a thinker or a feeler?

Next time, we will examine dialogue creation in Creating Realistic Characters: Part 5.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Creating Realistic Characters: Part 3

Goals. Most of us in adulthood have them. We might aim to lose weight, obtain another degree, save to buy a house, date to find a significant other, apply to adopt a child, or in some other way reach for something beyond our current existence. Characters need to do the same thing, even in short pieces of fiction.

When we last talked about creating a character, I had the students putting their characters through various scenarios to flush out their strengths and flaws. As part of this exercise, they should have the character do things to make the author proud as well as do things to make the author despise the character. Every character creation needs to have his or her “terrible twos” moment of author disgust.

A great way to discover the inner desires of a created character is to have the student interview the character as though the character was on a talk show. It is often very revealing to have the students take on the role of the character while peers interview them. Journalists interview people to learn more about a topic, create an interesting story from the answers, and put the interviewee a little on edge. They begin with small talk to make the subject comfortable, and then move into probing questions. The interviewer needs to tolerate long pauses. The questions can also be on a worksheet, but I have found it works best to have someone talk through the questions with the student.

I use these interview questions:
  1. Which scenario did you find the easiest to envision and why?
  2. What did you learn about yourself as a result of that scenario?
  3. Were there any surprises in your response that caught you off guard? Why?
  4.  Which scenario was the most difficult to use and why?
  5. What did that scenario tell you about yourself that surprised you?
  6.  Think about someone who would be a good friend for you. Who did you select, and what aspects of that person makes them a good potential friend?
  7. What situation might turn that friend into an enemy? What could cause that to happen?
  8.  How would you mend the relationship, or would you not try to mend it? Why?
  9. What do you love the most about being you?
  10. What do you hate the most about being you?
  11. What one thing do you want the most in the world, and why do you want it?
  12. To what lengths would you be willing to go to get it?

From this exercise, the student should learn the goal of the character as well as his or her motives. Wants and desires emerge from the later questions, and the needs are categorized by status (immediate, near term, and future). An easy way to work with this concept is to have students look at printed advertisements in magazines to identify the wants and desires reflected in those images. That little visual nudge can help to crystallize the personality of the character, making it sharper and more memorable. The Pinterest pin for this post is a clear image showing how this idea works. It is clear what the piebald cat wants, and it is clear what the black cat is thinking. The next discussion point for the class is determining the motive or motives which drive the characters.

The next step is to create a backstory for the character. Who is this person, and what made him or her be like that? What life experiences did the character have? Where did the character live? We will cover that next time in Creating Realistic Characters: Part 4.

Keywords: character, cartoon, traits, writing, writing sprints, character traits, students

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Creating Realistic Characters: Part 2 

In the last installment, I had my students select three character traits they regarded as positive and three character traits they regarded as negative. The traits selected are going to vary as widely as the personalities of the students who are creating these characters. That is perfectly acceptable, as there is no right or wrong answer to selecting the traits. I do, however, enforce one rule: the traits need to oppose each other. The goal is to have a sliding scale of behavior for the main character.

Elementary school personal narratives stress selecting a single incident with a focus on learning how to show the story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. By sixth grade, students are expected to add a reflection to the narrative to describe the “lesson learned” by the student. I’ve had the most success by having students practice this “lesson learned” part with a character the student creates rather than trying to put themselves into what could become an embarrassing lesson for the first round.

Once the students create a character, they make an “incident wheel” spinner. Each student selects eight scenarios to place on a pie chart. I usually dictate the setting as school for middle school students and home for elementary school students. I’ve found middle school students are more reluctant to write about their home lives than elementary students.

Here’s a sample incident list for sixth graders to choose from if the setting is school:
·         Fell in the hallway next to the classroom
·         Forgot to print and bring the report to school
·         Unable to find classes at a new school after a mid-semester move
·         Due to behavior issues, a parent had to shadow the character all day
·         Student caught cheating on a test by copying answers
·         Teacher selects student’s submission as a good example to show the class
·         Classmate tells student he or she likes the kid
·         One student does not do the assigned part while working on a group project
·         A student is recognized in the morning announcements for an outstanding performance
·         A student tries out for advanced orchestra, but does not make it
·         During art class, one student draws an unflattering cartoon of another student
·         A noisy student talks constantly while sitting next to a quiet student

Seventh graders usually add more situations about personal relationships, crushes, and friendships. Fifth and fourth graders usually add more situations about family events. I often start a bullet list, and allow the students to add scenarios they want to see on their wheels. By having twelve or more easily envisioned incidents, the task of selecting eight possibilities becomes easier. If you are working with a reluctant writer who is overwhelmed with anxiety, narrow the choice list.

Next, the students use the paperclip spinner wheel to pick one of the scenarios. They then use their sliding scale to determine how the character will react to the situation. For example, a student decides Character X (we don’t name them until later) has these opposing traits:

1.      Selfish……………………………………………………………Generous
2.      Outgoing……………………………………………………….Quiet
3.      Brave…………………………………………………………….Timid

The student spins, landing Character X in the scenario where the character falls in the hallway. The student first decides on which traits dominate the character’s response to the event and why (we often act out the event). Perhaps the student decides the character responds with severe embarrassment and anger, shouting out in wrath at an innocent character.

1.      Selfish………X……………………………………………………Generous
2.      Outgoing………X……………………………………………….Quiet
3.      Brave……X……………………………………………………….Timid

The student then writes the interaction as narrative text (we insert dialogue later).

Character X walked down the hall toward math class, but tripped on his own shoelace. He then landed with a thud, and yelled out at a nearby scapegoat.

Next, we rewrite the event from within the character as a first person narrator.

I was late. Despite the crowd, I almost made it through the doorway. Suddenly I careened into the lockers and sprawled on the floor. Leaping up, I shouted at a nearby sixth grader to watch where he was going. He didn’t actually trip me, but I wasn’t going to admit it!

The flaws for this character then become a quick temper, an unwillingness to be embarrassed, and a desire to pass blame onto others. These weaknesses reflect both moral and mental weaknesses. The mental weakness is the inability to control a flash temper and the struggle to handle embarrassment. The moral weakness is the desire to blame others instead of accepting responsibility. The moral weakness is the greater flaw, since it indicates a willingness to belittle or bully others. 

For the final step, they turn the scenario into a short narrative poem using the voice of the created character, and create a cartoon of the event.

By putting character X through more scenarios, the student adds more flaws to the character. Strengths can also surface. Suppose character X had hit the sixth grader when he fell, and apologized rather than casting blame. Putting characters through these small scenarios helps to round them.

Next time, we’ll look at setting a goal for the character, as well as deciding between wants and needs. Remember these are short writing sprints to help students see multiple sides of their characters. They also help students later write about themselves more freely than they otherwise would without the neutral character X practices.

Keywords: character, cartoon, traits, writing, writing sprints, character traits, students

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Creating Realistic Characters: Part 1

If you have ever applied for a management position, you have probably had the interviewer ask you to describe your greatest strength as well as your greatest weakness in the work environment.

There is a good reason for that.

Determining what you value as a strength quickly gives the employer a view into your personality. It also is a great way to see if someone might or might not be a fit for a particular position.

It is also a wonderful way to start building a character.

When working with students, they often have trouble understanding what character traits are. Yet, once they do understand, they are able to create three-dimensional characters who act like real people in fictional scenes.

We start with a piece of paper divided into quadrants. The labels for each are: Says, Does, Thinks, Traits. Long before we think about what a character looks like or even select the gender for a character, we create this four-part profile. 

For elementary school students, I use basic trait lists with qualities like “kind” or “patient”. For middle school students, the lists include traits like “anxious” or “reckless”. 

Here are my starting lists:
Elementary – Brave, Honest, Kind, Fair, Patient, Loving, Wise, Funny, Humble, Friendly
Middle School – All of the above plus Hopeful, Spiritual, Appreciative, Disciplined, Prudent, Forgiving, Merciful, Observant, Loving, Persistent

There are many more traits than this, but I have found that these lists work well in the beginning.

In the quadrant labeled “Traits”, the kids must choose three positive traits. They then must also list the inverse traits for three more. That gives us a chance to talk about antonyms as well as an opportunity to discuss examples of negative behaviors resulting from character flaws.

For example, a pirate captain may be brave, patient, and wise. The character may also be arrogant, reckless, and amoral. Once the student has the three positive and three negative traits identified, the student writes a paragraph describing how the character might show these traits when challenged.

For example:
When cornered, character X immediately draws a weapon whether or not the situation warrants it (brave yet reckless). Once the weapon is in hand, character X studies the opponent for an opening blow opportunity (wise yet arrogant). Character X is taken aback when the opponent identifies himself or herself as a brother or sister lost to a kidnapping, yet X proceeds to disarm the opponent anyway (amoral).

Students enjoy playing with different traits in different situations, and it gives them a chance to explore the type of character the student wants to create. Middle school students in particular enjoy researching additional character traits and using movie characters as models from which to extract traits. 

When we are starting a creative writing unit, we start this way. It lets the kids create the essence of a character without the usual focus on character appearance.

Next time, in Creating Realistic Characters: Part 2, we will look at additional factors to develop for a well-rounded character.

Keywords: character, cartoon, traits, writing, writing sprints, character traits, students

Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Story of Things: Part 3

The Story of Things: Part 3

When I am teaching argumentation, the kids and I talk about the facts we pull from articles and how to cite those quotes. We then turn to anecdotal evidence. The kids are usually confused by the term “anecdotal”, and they often ask what it means.

Simply put, an anecdote is a personal experience told in the form of a brief story. They are often humorous, are fun to write, and are a great way to entice kids to share their writing. When we write one, I have the kids start by making a list of things that happened to them that they think are funny.

These are usually related to one of these situations:
-          the first time something was tried
-          the time something was scary, but then wasn’t
-          the thing that was supposed to work, but didn’t
-          the thing that should not have happened, but did
-          the thing you were supposed to love, but wound up hating

Last year, one of my students wrote about his first experience eating dried and salted nori. Nori is a delicious dried seaweed covered with tasty salt. A little goes a long way for most people. My student decided to eat the entire COSTCO container of nori, just before his swim lesson.

Everything was fine at first, but then the chlorine smell began to affect him. He felt nauseated, and then became ill in the pool. He laughed so hard he was hiccupping as he told the story. Apparently, he cleared the pool in a matter of seconds.

When a student writes a personal narrative like that, he or she is usually very excited to share the piece. As the teacher, it is important to let them do that even if the aesthetic of the story is less than pleasant. The story writer can be guided at a later time to select a story for classroom publishing that isn’t as vivid as bright green vomit islands floating in a pool.

The time is perfect, however, for talking about creating a fictional character. A main character in a story could have that incident happen, and it could be tragic or hilarious based on the character created.

Next time, we’ll look at creating realistic characters based on human behavior. 

Keywords: character, cartoon, traits, writing, writing sprints, character traits, students

I am happy to announce that my YA horror novel is now available in both ebook and paperback form from Amazon. Pick up a copy, then leave a ...