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.


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 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.


Julie C. Gilbert

Learning Objectives:


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


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

experiences, events, and/or characters.

Link to Ashlynn’s Dreams.