Building Believable Characters
- Grades: 6–8
- Unit Plan:
About this book
Authors often create character sketches before they ever do any writing of the book. Their hope is to create characters whom readers will care about. The realer the character seems, the more interested we are to see what happens to them. Sometimes we can get to know a character so well, we can predict what they would do next. We could step into their shoes. The characters of Inkheart come alive for the readers — those inside and outside of the story. Cornelia Funke's ability to build believable characters makes the world she creates believable too. This lesson focuses on character development and its impact on the reader or listener. Verbal, nonverbal, written, and spoken language will be utilized for this purpose.
- Employ descriptive strategies such as physical descriptions, background descriptions, and comparison of characters when writing narratives
- Develop the topic with supporting details and precise diction to paint a visual image in the reader's mind
- Use precise language, action verbs, sensory details, appropriate and colorful modifiers, and an active rather than passive voice in ways that enliven oral presentations
- Analyze characters and their traits
- Computer: activities can be modified from one computer to a whole computer lab
- Flashlight Readers: Inkheart: Step Into Character
- Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
- Character Builder Worksheet (PDF)
- Staying in Character Handout (PDF)
- Character Sketch Sample (PDF)
- LCD or overhead projector
Set Up and Prepare
- Bookmark Flashlight Readers: Inkheart on the computers students will use
- NOTE: If students have limited access to computers, print activity screens and make transparency copies to post on an overhead projector.
Step 1: Have students view the Inkheart Step Into Character online activity from Flashlight Readers to gain insight into what they will learn in this lesson. Tell them that authors need to know their characters well enough to "speak" for them throughout the story.
Prompt for class discussion:
- Can you name a favorite character from a beloved story? What can you tell us about that character?
- Knowing what you know about that character, could you predict what he or she might do in any given situation? Give an example.
- Can you name a character that you disliked in a story? What can you tell us about that character?
Step 2: As a class, brainstorm other types of vital statistics that could be included about a character. Keep this list in view for students to consider when they create their own character sketches of one of the Inkheart characters.
- Prompt for class discussion:
A character sketch explores many different aspects of a character. Physical character traits are usually revealed little by little by the author in a way that is interesting. It would be too boring to the reader to just list everything about the character at once. These are the vital statistics about your main character: date and place of birth, what he/she looks like, physical imperfections, the way they dress, occupation, etc.
Step 3: Readers love character-driven stories. They want to care enough about a character to find out what happens to them. Do they get what they want in the end? Do they grow through the adversity they face? It's how we relate to one another through the written word. It is very powerful. So what does your character want or need? An emotional need (learn how to love again, learn how to trust others, etc.), and a physical need (find a lost family member, learn how to walk again, etc.)? Give your character these needs/wants before you ever begin to write. The rest of the story is usually an attempt to meet those goals.
As a class, brainstorm a list of both emotional and physical needs/wants that characters might have. Keep this list in view for students to consider when they create their own character sketches of one of the Inkheart characters.
Step 4: There are two different types of characters: the good guy and the bad guy. Even antagonists (the bad guys/gals) must have something that is relatable or loveable about them. It's what makes them human. A woman who consistently breaks the trust of family and friends might also be a foster mother to stray animals. Find a redeeming quality even for your bad guy.
- Have each student choose a character from Inkheart that they believe is a "bad guy." Using the Character Builder Worksheet (PDF), have them write down what they know about this character from reading the story.
Step 5: Good guys (protagonists) should be just as interesting. Protagonists shouldn't be perfect people. We all have flaws. If your main character is too perfect, they will distance the reader. Readers want to relate to a character in some way. Give your main character a flaw, but not a fatal flaw. Maybe your hero is a good friend or brother, but he also spends so much time playing video games that he doesn't do his homework.
- Have each student choose a character from Inkheart that they believe is a "good guy." Using the Character Builder Worksheet (PDF), have them write down what they know about this character from reading the story.
Step 6: Getting Into Character: have students practice getting into the head of a particular Inkheart character by doing the online activity Step into Character. This will help them understand what they do and don't know about a character. Have students print out the results to use for reference in Step 9 and to turn in for evaluation.
Step 7: Staying In Character: characters act consistently within their personalities. Someone who always jumps to conclusions will do so in your story. Someone who is easily discouraged will be so in your story when things go wrong. Your character shouldn't suddenly and unexplainably act "out of character." In order for your character to be believable and someone your reader cares about, they need to be consistent in their reactions, responses, and attitudes.
- Have students use their prediction skills to tell how a character will respond to a situation. Using the Staying in Character Handout (PDF) on the overhead, lead a class discussion on this topic.
Step 8: Putting it all together: we learn about a character through the storytelling, not from a list of vital statistics on a page. Now it's time for students to use their character-building sheets to help them write a narrative paragraph about their chosen character. Encourage them to weave the character traits in without listing them. Read aloud passages from Inkheart that reveal character traits, for instance the following:
- P. 64 — Meggie learns what Elinor values most in this world through these paragraphs, beginning with "Why is it so dark everywhere here?"
- P. 21–22 — Some of Dustfinger's character and characteristics are revealed through these paragraphs, beginning with "Only Dustfinger was there now. . ."
- P. 13 — We learn more about Mo's character through Meggie's eyes beginning with "Well, it won't be the first time I've had to go away on business during the school term."
- P. 251 — We get our first introduction to Fenoglio's character beginning with "'Yes?'" The face looked less forthcoming than ever."
Step 9: Go over the Character Sketch Sample (PDF) included in this lesson, either individually or on the overhead. Tell students to use their printouts from the Step Into Character activity to help them choose one character from Inkheart to write a one paragraph character sketch that includes as many elements as they can from their character-building sheet.
Step 10: Comparing Notes: group students according to the characters they choose to study. Give them time to compare their character sketches. Choose a reporter for each group, and have the reporter share with the rest of the class the similarities and differences among their character sketches.
Supporting All Learners
Language Arts Standards (4th Ed.)
- Uses descriptive language that clarifies and enhances ideas (e.g., establishes tone and mood, uses figurative language, uses sensory images and comparisons, uses a thesaurus to choose effective wording)
- Uses appropriate verbal and nonverbal techniques for oral presentations (e.g., inflection/modulation of voice, tempo, word choice, grammar, feeling, expression, tone, volume, enunciation, physical gestures, body movement, eye contact, posture)
- Understands elements of character development (e.g., character traits and motivations; stereotypes; relationships between character and plot development; development of characters through their words, speech patterns, thoughts, actions, narrator's description, and interaction with other characters; how motivations are revealed)
- Have students visit the Flashlight Readers Book Bulletin Board to share the topic of their character sketches with others.
- Students could even post their narrative paragraphs on the message board.
- For your students who love to write, encourage them to keep a character sketch journal to help them inventory characters they create for different stories that they write.
- As a whole-class activity, have students create their own character sketches about an original character as a pre-writing exercise to writing their own stories.
Use the rubric (PDF) to grade the filled-out Character Builder Worksheet (PDF), the printout from the online activity, and their final character sketches. Use the following expectations as a starting point:
- Described physical appearance of character
- Described emotional wants or needs of character
- Offered connections of these traits to the story's plot
- Provided extra details like hobbies, favorite foods or colors, etc.