Saturday, 3 March 2018

Building character in people, objects and places

There is a direct link to between this blog and my teaching. That’s why the content is varied and surprising. Often, what I write about is either something I have done in a lesson or something I am going to do next week. In my last blog, I wrote about how we need to declutter writing and help students to write clear, effective writing rather than overblown, heavy writing. In that little exploration I explored how Roald Dahl described a character. I then went on to teach a lesson on creating character in a line.

When preparing for the lesson, I explored how Dahl introduces a character in his anthology ‘Completely Unexpected Tales.’ Roughly, he has one sentence alone to introduce a character. There is more character building through dialogue or action, but often or not Dahl creates a character simply through one line. Below are some examples:

·         Gladys Ponsonby is an unusually short woman, certainly not more than four feet nine or ten , maybe even less than that – one of those tiny persons who gives me, when I am beside her, the comical, rather wobbly feeling that I am standing on a chair.

·         She was about forty-five of fifty years old, and the moment she saw him, she gave him a warm welcoming smile.

·         All her life, Mrs Foster had had an almost pathological fear of missing a train, a plane, a boat, or even a theatre curtain.

·         Mr Eugene Foster, who was nearly seventy years old, lived with his wife in a large six-storey house in New York City, on East Sixty-second Street, and they had four servants.

·         Mr Boggis was driving the car slowly, leaning back comfortably in the seat with one elbow resting on the sill of the open window.

·         All his life Albert Taylor had been fascinated by anything that had to do with bees.

·         She and her husband were new people in town.

Source: Completely Unexpected Tales by Roald Dahl

I found them fascinating to look when viewing them under the perspective of character. In shorthand form we have a character’s backstory easily presented. Take Mr Boggis. The character oozes confidence, arrogance and relaxation. You don’t need to describe his flowing hair. You don’t need to describe his Rolex watch.  You don’t need to describe the car. Interestingly, the car isn’t described, but you could easily picture the type of car a man like this would describe.

Then, you had Dahl describe a character’s personality deftly. Mrs Foster’s fear of missing thing gives you a picture of a character always on edge, rushing, anxious and hesitant.   

You also have the ominous ‘new people in town’ description. In fact, you don’t need that much description for that. You get the idea that they don’t fit it. People are suspicious of them. Or wary, at least.

Not only did this lesson help us look at character, but it helped us infer aspects about the character. Where do we get the idea that this character has money? If we look at the new AQA GCSE English Language exam, students have to be really precise with their reading and interpretations. A hat could have massive repercussions in a story and if students don’t picked on the fine details in a line, then big erroneous suggestions could be made. Yes, we do need students to read lots of stories, but we also need them to read lines and read lines really closely. Two students working on the summer 2017 paper thought that there was a theme of racism in the text and that the woman had just returned from the circus. If students don’t get the fine points of the story, they make huge leaps of imagination. With or without common sense.  

As a class, we made up our own examples of character. Typical for me. I picked on two students to model an example.

       Tim was a boy who couldn’t sit still even if his life depended on it and that’s was often the case.

       Mary rarely smiled, but when she did it was signal that she had something mischievous on her mind.

Then students created their own. The emphasis was clearly on suggesting their character and personality. We explored the different ways you could do this. And, how this could be adapted if there was more than one character.

Tyler Smith was a man of very few talents, but being nosy was one of his specialities. His wife kept this from her friends: it was her embarrassing secret.  

We then started turning them into our versions of a Dahl story. Here’s a draft opening of my effort:

Tyler Smith was a man of very few talents, but being nosy was one of his specialities. His wife kept this from her friends: it was her embarrassing secret. His sixty-five-year-old hands were often opening the curtains at night to see who was making noises in the street, what had knocked the bins over, and which car had zoomed down the street without consideration.

The street was a typical street, with typical cars and typical houses dotted around carelessly. On Tuesday, the postman casually walked down street and visited one house at a time. The postman wore shorts even when it was snowing. Thankfully, this day there was sunshine instead of snow.

‘Morning,’ shouted Tyler as he opened the door, curious to see who was moving about his street.

‘Glorious morning, isn’t it’, responded the postman, for he was never negative.

‘Yes, indeed, you could say that.

I discovered, to my surprise, that this made for much more varied and interesting writing from the students. If you think about how students typically describe a character is through the physicality of the character and that alone. Through physical appearance we describe if a character is good, bad, ugly or smelly. This shorthand to character made for much more interesting writing.

But, for me, this has further implications for developing writing. Rather than using an adjective, an adjective, a simile and personification before a noun, we can be a lot more playful. In fact, we can be playful with object, people and settings – leading us to the merry path of Question 5.

The chair admired its position on the bus; it was the first to be picked as it was next to the door.

 The 917 enjoyed the quietness of a late Saturday night after the noisy bustle of drunken youths squabbling and singing.

To be honest, I am bored on the writing of Question 5 as it ends up with lists of adjectives and verbs. Wouldn’t it be more interesting to add more character to a setting? How could you add more character to a setting of a beach?

The waves played their favourite game and chased the sand away from the rocks.

The wind, fed up of being ignored, pushed and shoved at everything and anything it could find.

The gulls rarely lifted their heads. Instead their glum eyes and dour beaks rested on the ground.

Instead, we get something like this:

The waves crashed and smashed against the sandy rocks.

The reckless wind wiped the smiles and hats off the people.

The noisy gulls wait for food.

Maybe, we need to be developing our ways of building up character in writing. Too long we have people telling us that schools should be building character. Maybe this is what they mean. We build character and personality through their writing.

Thanks for reading,


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