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Lessons From the Author – Creating Believable Character Voices (and Setting Scenes)

Note: Although the lesson is suitable for 4th grade students, it might be better with 5th or 6th grade students.

Time: Discussion length could vary slightly, especially if you chose to have select students read aloud. Meant to fill one 40-50 minute period.

By Julie C. Gilbert , Author of Ashlyn's Dreams

By Julie C. Gilbert , Author of Ashlyn’s Dreams

When writing a story, you often want to establish your scene quickly. Where is the character? Is he/she safe? Is he/she alone? What does the character’s interaction with the scene reveal about their personality? These details become important in building believable characters.

 What do the details tell you? Think-Pair-Share (~5-7 minutes): Read the following excerpt and pick out 3-5 details that help create the mood for the scene.

Example 1 Excerpt from Ashlynn’s Dreams Ch. 5 Dark Place:Speaker = Jillian Blairington

I awoke in a dark place. My head felt fuzzy like it was buzzing. Rolling over hurt ’cause my hands were tied behind me pretty tightly. My arms had a tingly numbness that said the cords were biting into ’em even through my shirt. My feet were bound, too, but that was less annoying. I grunted but that only aggravated my head, so I quit that. My stiff clothes clung to me like a glove, a cold, uncomfortable glove at that.

Danielle.

The thought brought me wide awake, just like a nice bucket of ice water. I sat up too fast and fell over the other way into a cold wall. I shook my head to clear it, only gaining more pain. On the nice side, whoever the meanie-heads were who kidnapped me, they didn’t bother stuffing nothing in my mouth. Leaning my head against the coolness coming from the wall felt good, so I let myself rest there while I thought.

Repeat the Think-Pair-Share for this new excerpt (~5-7 minutes)

Example 2 Excerpt from Ch. 7 Guest or Prisoner?:

Speaker = Danielle Matheson

You know you’re around real nut-jobs when they treat you like a hotel guest a few hours after snatching you from a suburban home. Following the woman led to all sorts of nice things, like a shower, fresh clothes, and food, wonderful, lovely food. Wish I could say it was a four-course meal, but that peanut butter and jelly sandwich tasted like manna from Heaven. Or at least it would have if I had tasted one bit of it. I think I swallowed the thing whole.

I must have asked a few thousand questions in the short time I was being fed.

The woman pretty much ignored me until I finished eating. If she bothered answering a question it was only with a vague sort of wait-until-later answer.

“I’m tired of waiting!” I finally burst out.

The woman just laughed.

“Why won’t you tell me anything?”

“You don’t need to know right now,” the woman replied.

“Can I at least know your name?” I practically begged.

The woman studied me for the longest moment.

I began to suspect I had peanut butter mashed on my nose or something equally as horrible.

“You can call me Cora,” she said at last.

“That’s not your real name?”

Weirder and weirder.

“It has been my name for a very long time, and that’s all that matters.”

I pinched the bridge of my nose to ward off an annoyance-induced headache. I sniffed with bitter laughter. I think I was starting to crack. It just struck me as funny that I couldn’t really define whether I was a guest or a prisoner here. Then a thought blindsided me. “What do you want with her?”

Jillian. Child. Innocent. Protect.

The random words swirled in my head.

Next, take a few minutes to compare and contrast the details each narrator chose to include. (This part might be a stretch for 4th graders.) Ask the students to guess which narrator is younger and give a reason for their answer. (Answer: Jillian.) What descriptions reveal that Danielle is older?

With first person narration, one character’s observations can easily reveal another person’s character. What does the narrator’s observations show you about the man?

Example 3 Excerpt from Ashlynn’s Dreams Ch. 10 A Place for Science:

The room I stepped into was all gussied up with a thick couch, an overgrown reclining chair, and fat pillows in all sorts of colors. A large desk sat toward the back wall, and behind that, some thick curtains covered the back wall itself. They was all black and kinda creepy. Momma woulda hated ’em.

A man stood behind the desk with arms crossed over his chest like he was waiting for something. His desk was a mess. Nana woulda worn his ear out scolding over the state of that mess. Pens, papers, pencils, small sticky notes, a few dozen paper cups, some icky-looking food, and a couple of real ugly paper weights took over the desk. No one could work there and keep all their marbles straight.

I didn’t say nothing at first ’cause it ain’t fitting to speak outta turn when you’re a guest. I wasn’t sure then, and still ain’t certain, if that applies if somebody up and snatches you right out of your home. Never thought to ask Nana about it.

Can you tell from the wording whether the speaker is Jillian or Danielle?

 

Additional Exercises: (These are just ideas. I think there should be time for at least one of them.)

Exercise 1: Select 1-2 details from the first or second excerpt (or select from a list provided by your teacher) and use them to create a new scene.

Exercise 2 a: Voice Analysis; small words/ big differences – Look at the list below and choose whether you think the word which narrator would be more likely to say each word or phrase.

  1. That is a horrible thing to say. Circle one: Jillian or Danielle
  2. That’s a rotten thing to say. Circle one: Jillian or Danielle
  3. I gotta go real bad. Circle one: Jillian or Danielle
  4. I need to use the facilities. Circle one: Jillian or Danielle

Exercise 2 b: Write a pair of sentences that imitate either Jillian or Danielle’s way of speaking. If you have time, do both. Possible topics: weather (different ways to say “It was hot/cold.”), food, great game, long school day, etc.

Exercise 3: Describe your classroom twice, once using “young” language and once using “older” language.

Exercise 4: Scene Meets Character (Mix and Match) – I often find that creating a scene and placing a character in that scene reveals a lot about the character. Take one of the following scenarios and character descriptions and try to write a scene that reveals that character trait or emotion.

Possible Scenes Character Traits and Emotions
A park Fear
The mall Bravery
A dark alley Brashness/ arrogance
A funeral Smugness
A family party Shy
A ball game Silly
The beach Anger

 

Thanks for taking the time to go through these scenes with me. If you have questions about Ashlynn’s Dreams or writing in general, please feel free to email me at devyaschildren@gmail.com. or  leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you with an answer. When it comes to writing, enjoy every step of the journey.

Author,

Julie C. Gilbert

Learning Objectives:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.4.3.B

Use dialogue and description to develop experiences and events or show the responses of characters to situations.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.6.3.B

Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, and description, to develop

experiences, events, and/or characters.

Link to Ashlynn’s Dreams.

Lessons From the Author – Building Character

Have you ever wondered how an author makes you really love a character? There’s a lot to consider when an author chooses and develops a character for a story.

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Click on this for free pdf version of the lesson.

This lesson could take place over several days. Click on this icon to get a free pdf version of this lesson:

  •  First consider age. How old do you want your character to be? Well that will depend on your audience. Who are you writing this story for? How old will your readers be? If they are other students, then they will most likely want a character that is just slightly older than themselves. They want someone they can look up to.
  •  Next you’ll need to map out your characters features. What does he look like?

When I chose Christopher Faramund as my main character I really wanted kids to identify with him, and I was writing for ten-year olds, so I made him twelve years old. I revealed his age and some of his physical features in this excerpt:

Example: A sudden gust of wind tugged at his tricorn, almost lifting it from his blonde waves of hair, but Christopher instinctively grabbed it with his free hand.  The hat had been a gift from his parents—Charles and Alexus Faramund—for his twelfth birthday only three months ago. 

“This tricorn is meant for a true captain,” his father had announced, as he showed Christopher the black felt hat. It was adorned on the left brim with a large round pin that looked like a compass. The pin featured a light blue jewel set at its center.

What a day that was! Peeking out from under the precious black felt brim had been the proudest moment of Christopher’s life. His father had crowned him a captain, a real sea captain. What a feeling! And the proud look in his father’s eyes; he would never ever forget that look. Could anything be more special?

His mother had echoed the feeling with the warmth in her smile. She looked radiant as she’d tipped back the triangular hat. “Never cover those aqua eyes,” she scolded his father. “They are the color of the sea, and meant to see what others cannot.”  Then she winked at Christopher, straightened the tricorn, and nudged Charles. “Just look at him,” she said. “He looks like his father in this thing. My son is a true captain indeed!” ~ The Jewel of Peru, chapter 1

  • Wait! You’re not done yet. Who is your character? I mean what personality traits does your character have? Use these questions to guide you:
  • What is your character’s main goal and what traits will help him or her to achieve that goal?
  • How does your character react to certain situations because of their traits? For example if s/he found out they were asked to do something they didn’t want to do, would they… panic? Laugh? Run? Be curious and want to find out more? Get angry? Does s/he say yes without thinking or does s/he think through the options?
  • How does your character react to others? Does s/he get annoyed? Does s/he laugh a lot or make jokes? Does s/he constantly ask a lot of questions? Does s/he always try to help, Does s/he have any nervous habits? You get the idea.  If you could only use three words would you use to describe your character?

What do you learn about Jada’s personality from reading these excerpts?

Example 1: Jada slipped through the crowd cautiously so as not to be seen. She adjusted her ponytail and tucked a wisp of her dark hair behind her ear to keep it out of her eyes while she scouted. The gang was counting on her, especially the younger ones. A good purse would mean a full belly for the hungry stowaways who eagerly awaited her return to their hideout at the shipyard.

At last she spied her target: A man with a sling over his shoulder; filled with fruit, vegetables, and a loaf of bread. On his shoulder there also hung a canteen of water. That would keep them for a day or maybe two. She inched closer. He was tall, and his red hair made him easy to follow through the crowd until she could make a clean getaway. The gap between them grew shorter. It was time. Lunging forward Jada snatched the canteen and the sling, jerking them from his arm before he had time to react. Not a single orange was lost in the scuffle as she tucked both items under her shirt, and darted away through the crowd.

A few strides later, Jada glanced back. The stranger was giving pursuit. She stretched her long legs, breaking into a full run. At age sixteen, she could outrun most men—her swift legs hadn’t failed her yet—but he was bigger, stronger and faster. Soon he was gaining on her. Still, if she could get to the shipyard, she’d lose him there. ~ Chapter 2, The Jewel of Peru

Example 2: 

“Oh alright,” answered Sheridan “We just need to be careful, that’s all. Did anyone follow you, Jada?”

“No one will find us,” Jada answered. “The man with the food gave chase, but I lost him.” Again a smug grin spread across her face.

“Are you sure?” Sheridan countered.

Jada sighed, rolling her eyes. How dare he question her like this? “Yes, I’m sure,” she said, flatly.

“We can’t be too careful,” Sheridan continued.

“I said—I was sure,” Jada shot back, now glaring.

Hastily, Heidi stepped in to dispel the tension. “The fruit is delicious.” She rubbed an apple on the laced vest she wore over her blouse and took another bite.

“Thank you, Heidi,” answered Jada. “Maybe next time, Sheridan can get the food, since he would be so—much—more—careful.” She directed a scowl Sheridan’s way as she said it.

“I just want us to be safe, is all,” he muttered.

“Don’t you worry about intruders. Jada knows what she’s doing.” Chang patted Sheridan on the back while he spoke. Then he quipped, “But you might worry about dying of starvation, when—I eat your share.” He smiled as he held out an apple, pretending to take a bite before holding it out to Sheridan.

Sheridan stroked his red curls back with one hand while reaching for the apple with the other. “Thanks,” he said, smiling back.

Jada stood. Her eyes rolled as she pinched her mouth and shook her head. Sheridan’s constant worry was so annoying. Didn’t he trust her? ~ Chapter 2, The Jewel of Peru

  • Lastly, consider your character’s point of view. As you are writing, you will most likely want to mostly write from your main character’s point of view. You have to really “get in their head” to help your reader connect with them. This means that you only include what the character sees, feels, hears, etc.. Stick to only one character’s point of view for each event in your story.

What does this excerpt show you about how Christopher is feeling?

Example: As soon as the sailor was gone, Christopher thumped up the gangplank and boarded the ship. Alistair followed Christopher as he bolted to every part of the ship. He was half hoping to find his parents, or at least a clue to their whereabouts—but there was no sign of his father, or his mother—who’d also been on board.

He ended his search in the captain’s quarters, opening every cabinet and every door. Finally, he gave up. His arms fell to his sides and his shoulders sagged. He stood there, staring blankly at the wall.

Alistair broke the silence. “They’re gone,” he said, softly.

It was too much to bear. Christopher felt the heat rising up his face as he clenched his jaw. Turning to Alistair, he glared an accusation. Then he charged. His fists landed on Alistair’s broad chest, pounding. “This is your fault!” he cried. “My father needed you. You should have stayed with him, not with me. You could have helped him in the storm, but no, you wouldn’t go with them. They would’ve gotten through that storm with you as first mate!” ~ Chapter 1, The Jewel of Peru

Now it’s your turn to create a character for your next story. Answer the questions on the free pdf of this lesson to guide you. Have fun inventing someone new and bringing them to life in your story!

Sharon Skretting,

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Click on this for free pdf version.

Author of The Jewel of Peru

This lesson teaches the following objectives:

*Apply grade 4 Reading standards to literature (e.g., “Describe in depth a character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text [e.g., a character’s thoughts, words, or actions].”).

*Use dialogue and description to develop experiences and events or show the responses of characters to situations.