Monday, April 18, 2011


by Pam Smallcomb

What is it that makes us keep on turning the pages of a book? An enthralling plot will certainly help, but interesting stories alone won’t necessarily keep our interest. What we need to keep reading is to become captivated by the characters in a story.

Movies and books are filled with fascinating characters. How did the screenwriters and authors develop them? One tool used in writing both screenplays and novels, is to create a character bio.

Students can write a character bio to get to know their main character, as well as his/her supporting cast, before they begin to write their story.

There are many different systems for documenting the scenes and characters in your story. Celtx is a screenwriting tool that is available on-line for free (which is a definite plus). Here is an example of the types of questions you will find there:

Character’s description?
Here you can write a brief summary about your character. I like to think of this as a high-level view, with little or no detail. You can start with something like “Sarah is a high school freshman, living in a small mid-western town. She is the only child. She’s shy. She loves singing.”
It’s a chance to put down anything and everything you can think of about your character. Don’t worry about the details. Just brainstorm. You will come back and update this later, to reflect everything you have learned about your character.

Detailed physical description?
This section includes a place for you to enter the character’s age, distinguishing features, hair color, eye color, height and weight. Now you know what your character looks like.

Key character traits?
When you are thinking of character traits, I think it’s helpful to start with the ones you know for certain, and see if they help you to think of others.
For Sarah let’s say these:

Sometimes one character trait will lead to another. If I decide Sarah should be obsessive (maybe about singing?) then she must have some fear as well (maybe she is afraid of losing of losing her dream? Maybe she has a fear of singing in public?). One character trait will often point you to the next one. If Sarah is loyal, then I think she should be caring as well. I’m starting to see she might be a good friend, or maybe she has always tried to be a good daughter. A small picture of Sarah is starting to form in my mind.

The next section is on motivation. Now things start to get interesting.
What is the goal of this character?
Go back and look at your summary paragraph. Mine said that Sarah was an only child, living in a small mid-western town. Maybe she feels stifled? Maybe Sarah’s goal is to break out of her small town life.

What is the character's plan to achieve the goal?
Once you figure out your character’s goal, you can decide how she is going to get there. What does Sarah have? She has her singing. Maybe Sarah wants to make it as a singer.

There are other sections that will help you to refine and get to know your character better: family background, habits and vices, education, personality, likes and dislikes.

Students can use this tool in another way: to analyze a character in a story. Filling in the different sections about a book character will help them see how the author used certain character traits, goals, and even physical descriptions to his advantage.

Developing complex and interesting characters requires some elbow grease and time (and it’s something I am always struggling with), but it’s time well spent if in the end you have yourself a ‘page-turner’.

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