Today my peer tutor, Serena, a Senior in SCAPA’s Literary Arts program, lead my class in a character development activity so fabulous, I wish I could claim I developed it myself.
Some Background: We’ve been unpacking the power of point of view in short fiction, specifically looking at where the language comes from in models like Daniel Orozco’s “Orientation,” Gish Jen’s “Who’s Irish?” and John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.” This week, we are looking at characterization as the point from which every element naturally stems – detail selection when describing setting, the word choice in dialogue, and the action/reaction in scenes with other characters. The objective of this lesson is to allow students to explore their character in a safe environment in order to understand the motivations and back story of the point of view character.
The Setup: When Serena was a sophomore, my students participated in a character development activity where students had to walk across the room or tie their shoes or order coffee or drive a car in the skin of their character. It’s method acting meets creative writing class. As Serena and I talked about her lesson plan, she recalled that the activity wasn’t very successful for her because she didn’t really know her character yet, and she wasn’t quite sure how they would walk or talk or drive a car. She recalled that the class was hesitant to stand up and walk around in front of other students in their character’s skin, because as Freshman they were barely comfortable in their own skin. So she came up with this idea she called “World’s Most Invasive Character Speed Dating” The purpose of speed dating is, of course, to find a compatible match, but the purpose of our activity was to provide students with ready-made questions and a limited time rotation process to interact with another person as their character.
The Activity: We set up the desks in the room in pairs and numbered each pair with a set of odd/even numbers (Ex. 1/2, 3/4, 5/6, etc.) Students were directed to sit down anywhere. On each desk, Serena had placed two questions. She had 20 different questions total. Some of them were innocuous (What is your eye color? Hair color? Is it natural or dyed? Do you have a birthmark? Tattoos? Where is it? What about scars? How did you get them?) but some of them went deeper into the psychology and back story of the characters, (Have you ever been in love? What is in your refrigerator right now? On your bedroom floor? On your nightstand? In your garbage can?) and others delved even deeper ( Do you have any powers? If not, if you could pick any power, what would it be? Would you use it for good or evil? If you had to commit a murder, how would you execute it? Where would you hide the body? What weapon would you use? ). Some of the questions she cabbaged off character development websites, others from speeding dating websites, and others she made up. Students spent about 4 minutes at each table. The even number characters stayed seated, and the odd numbers rotated to other desks when time was called. Since I was not running the show, I participated as a character: a nine-year-old Christian fundamentalist named Charlotte Bromagen who fancies herself as a neo-Joan of Arc with a loose sense of mission.
How Did It Go: This was one of the most successful activities we’ve done all year. Several students completely forgot who they were, and actually became their character, adopting tics, mannerisms, dialects, facial expressions. As they moved through the speed dating, they invented complete back stories, motivations, secrets, dreams, and fears for their characters. After the activity, Serena asked them to reflect in their notebook. Students commented that they were surprised when they started to answer as their character. “As the activity went on, I built up my character and got more and more into it,” commented one student. Some of them were so method, they had trouble coming out of character. As they made the rounds in the speed dating cycle, they reported, they were forced to react, not as themselves, but how they imagine their character would react. Hmmmm… that’s exactly what good writers do. ♥