One of the cardinal rules of writing is “Show, don’t tell.” This means that rather than telling readers that your character is bossy, you need to show her actually being bossy. Rather than telling readers that another character loves to daydream, you need to show her lost in reverie – and show us what the content of her fantasy is.
In my new series, Franklin School Friends, my characters are defined by their interests and passions. Kelsey (Kelsey Green, Reading Queen) loves to read. Annika (Annika Riz: Math Whiz) loves math. Izzy (Izzy Barr, Running Star) loves to run. You get the idea! In each book, my challenge is to find a way for the girls to support one another (in trying to win a reading contest, a Sudoku contest, or a race) while using their own distinctive talent and abilities.
So: as Izzy is trying to win a 10K race, Kelsey inspires her with the story of Atalanta’s famous race in Greek mythology and Annika helps her calculate how fast she needs to run each kilometer to beat her rival. When Kelsey suspects her rival, Simon, of cheating during a schoolwide reading contest, Annika figures out how many pages Simon would need to read in an hour to make good on his reading claims; Izzy spies on Simon with the plan of running fast if she gets caught.
Here’s a way to share this characterization challenge with students.
1) Let students pick a fun activity to be the focus of a scene. Examples might be: running a race, baking a cake, building a snow fort, starting a lemonade stand.
2) Choose names for three characters to be part of the scene, preferably with a mix of boys and girls (and not using names of any kids in the class).
3) Give each kid a character trait (e.g., shy, imaginative, clumsy, funny, determined, impatient, reckless, conceited, talkative). Or: give each kid a passion/talent (loves sports, science, math, music, reading).
4) Then: how can we SHOW this in the scene? If our characters are baking a cake, what would the shy character be doing? The imaginative one? The clumsy one? The funny one? What would the sports-lover contribute to the baking? Maybe she’d volunteer to use her arm muscles doing the mixing or she’d be jogging in place as the cake bakes. What would the scientist kid contribute? Maybe wondering how differently the cake would turn out if they left out the flour or baking powder? What would the musical kid be doing? Maybe making up a cake-baking song for them all to sing?
The takeaway point for the students is: character is shown through ACTION. We know what kind of person someone is by seeing what he DOES. So: provide a fun activity, gather together a group of imaginary kids, and let them reveal themselves to us!
Claudia Mills is the author of over 50 books for young readers, including How Oliver Olson Changed the World (an ALA Notable Book of the Year) and The Trouble with Ants (which just received a starred review in Publishers Weekly), as well as the Franklin School Friends series of chapter books from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Claudia lives in Boulder, Colorado, with her family and her cat, Snickers. Visit her at www.claudiamillsauthor.com.