This is Step 4 of my Seven Steps to Story Success – A step-by-step guide to teaching children how to write stories. If you missed the previous three steps follow the links below:
In this step kids will describing the characters in their story more detail. They should not only note physical aspects of their characters, but also more personal details such as their back story, strengths, skills, weaknesses, and motives.
I personally don’t believe I’m taking it too far when I say that character is key to a good story. Even if a story has an amazing concept, we as readers only care about what happens in a story if we care about the characters. This is why this step, where kids are asked to develop the main character and the other characters in their story, is so vital.
Children should take the time to plan their characters in some detail, even if these details aren’t revealed in their story. Real people respond to situations depending on their personal motivations, personalities and previous experiences. For characters to be believable, how they respond to situations encountered in a story, should be in line with their motivations, personalities, and back story.
In my experience, many children have characters in their story that are inconsistent. Planning out their characters before hand will serve as a reference for kids, reminding them of their character’s skills and personality and keep them consistent all the way through the story.
Even if you’re tempted to miss this step when you’re writing a short story with your kids, have a go at this character development activity as it will make such a difference to the final quality of the story.
I know the main desire and goal of the protagonist has already been identified in the previous step- planning the nitty gritty. In this character development part of the story writing process, have kids think about the reason or motive for having this goal.
It is also really useful to think about the desires and wants of any other characters that play a role in the story. As a rule, if a character does not want/ desire something they shouldn’t really be in the story as they aren’t going to play an active role in the plot.
Thinking about the characters’ goals in more detail is a great way to make characters more complex and real.
Ask children to identify a tangible goal for each of their characters. Then ask children to go a bit deeper into their characters’ goals and consider the reasons and motivation behind that goal.
For example, if the main character is making a journey – have kids think about the why. Why is the character leaving the comfort of their home to do this? Is it because they want to experience something different as they feel their life has been monotonous? To get away from a person or situation they don’t want to face? Do they want to prove something about themselves? Whatever the character’s goal is, there always has to be a reason that can be explained and makes sense.
Often the reason that a character does something is more interesting that what they actually do. Especially when it comes to the antagonist in stories. While stories are written to make readers support the protagonist and dislike the antagonist and what the antagonist does, readers might be able to sympathise with the reasons behind the antagonists actions.
Identify skills, hobbies or passions in the characters. Even if these aren’t revealed in the story, it will contribute to making believable characters. For example, a character who has a passion for chess may behave in a way that is different to a character who has a passion for baking. It is people’s passions that really give them that spark of “life-ness”, so identifying what the characters love doing in their spare time helps to give them that spark of life and help provide an overall character vibe.
To make characters seem more believable, have kids think about giving the characters some kind of bad habit. Generally, it’s common that people resort to doing something when they are thinking deeply, or are nervous, or dealing with a really bad situation. It can be something small, like chewing pens, something really annoying, like cracking knuckles, or something a bit more serious, like negative self-talk.
These details can add an extra layer of realism to characters and knowing this information can make characters more interesting to readers.
Having opposing traits in the character is also another way to make the character complex. It also opens up an opportunity in the story for adding an element of surprise, when a character behaves in a way unexpected to what the reader anticipates.
A character can have a personality or character trait that they show to the world. But in moments of panic, desperation, vulnerability, they actually show the opposite.
For example a character may act as if they don’t really care about other people, and they appear aloof, but actually when pushed to make a difficult decision, they show themselves to be selfish, and to put someone else’s need before their own.
Or the other way round, where the main character shows a darker, not nice side of themselves when put in a certain situation, which makes the characters more realistic and less two-dimensional.
I have found that identifying a back story for a character really impacts the quality of the character in the story, even if the back story of characters aren’t revealed in the actual story. This is because once a child has made the back story for a character, this character now has history in the child’s mind. The character isn’t just a fragment made from thin air. The character has a past that will impact how they talk, and behave, and the decisions they make. The character becomes a bit more real because of this past attached to it. Have kids consider a major event (or non-event if their character has nothing of significance happen to them yet), and how this has impacted the person they are in the present.
While I’ve put a lot of emphasis on developing personality traits of characters by getting kids to think about goals, motivations, habits, strengths, weaknesses, skills, interests and back stories, it’s still important to plan how the characters physically look on the outside. Their physical features, and how they dress, walk, their posture all contributes to giving the reader an immersive realistic experience. The way a person dresses and walks can say a lot about their personality.
This processes of developing characters might feel a bit alien and strange if doing this for the first time. Even as an exercise on its own, developing fictional characters is worth while as it really pushes kids to think creatively. If you really wanted to practice this skill with your kids, you can use random character images and create detailed character profiles for them.
I have created a template with prompts that kids can use to develop their characters in detail.
If you would like to share any work made by your kids whilst using this guide feel free to comment below, or email me at email@example.com
I hope this helps some of you out!