Connecting with Characters

A page from my notebook: This is the main character from a piece of fiction I’ve been working on.

My husband and I spent ten hours watching “The Newsroom” this summer.  We DVRed all of the episodes so we could watch them at our leisure.  By episode four I was hooked by the smart, fast-paced show created by Aaron Sorkin, who I think is a genius when it comes to writing dialogue.  After episode seven, I was no longer content to watch the episodes whenever we had time.  “We have to make the time,” I told my husband.  “I care about the characters and I want to know what happens to them.”  I was kind of embarrassed after that declaration.  After all, Will McAvoy, MacKenzie McHale, Sloane Sabbith, and Jim Harper are just characters on a TV show!  However, “The Newsroom” is about so much more than how the news is covered in a news room.  It’s also about the lives and the relationships between the characters.

If you’re a reader, then you know what it’s like to get invested in the characters of your books.  If you’re a reader, then you have stayed up into the wee hours of the morning in order to finish a book.  If you’re a reader, then you can recognize good writing when you see it.  But what about those kids in workshop who don’t like to read?  They’ve never connected with the characters in their books (For whatever reason… be it not reading just-right texts, not identifying with the characters in their books, or not getting matched with texts that are of interest.) and therefore they don’t like to read.  When this type of child comes to writing workshop, they often write fictional stories or personal narratives that lack the rich description (e.g., dialogue, setting, internal thinking) that makes their characters seem real to their readers.

With the admission of “I care about the characters and I want to know what happens to them,” I was reminded that teachers of writing can use television as a meaningful pop culture reference.  Many kids who don’t like to read love to watch TV.  Poll your students to find out what they’re watching and take some time to watch their favorite TV shows.  Get to know the characters and then use what you’ve learned about those characters as ways to hook your students into minilessons or in conferences about creating strong main characters and interesting secondary characters.  If you can talk with kids about the characters they love on television, then I think you can nudge them into realizing that someone is writing the script for those TV shows. Writers are developing characters that are either beloved or deeply disliked by the audience.  I think talking through the TV characters first will help students find ways to create characters their readers can identify and connect with when they create a piece of writing (whether they’re working on personal narrative or realistic fiction).

How do you help your students develop characters in their narrative writing?  Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment.