American screenwriter Bob Gale once said, “The three things that matter most in a story are characters, characters, and characters.”
Characterization is one of my favorite lessons to concentrate on in the ELA classroom. Characterization is the representation of a character in a fictional work. It is the traits that are shown, both inner and outer, that help the reader understand the character. Without characterization, the reader will not understand the motivations, actions, and interactions of the fictional role in the reading.
In every novel unit we begin, I choose to focus on characterization first after we have read the first couple of chapters. If the readers can understand the character deeply, then the rest of the book makes more sense. Here are 5 characterization activities I use in the upper elementary to middle school ELA classroom.
1. Word Bank
Once you explain characterization to students, it is best to start off simply. If you give students the task to list the inner and outer character traits, they can do so easily as long as they’ve read enough of the book to interpret the personality and appearance of the character. However, oftentimes, I’m met with an ordinary list of words such as, “nice, kind, good, bad, weird,” etc.
Sometimes students DO know those bigger, deep-thinking words to describe the character, and sometimes, they don’t. We, as teachers, should remind them of those awesome adjectives, and/or introduce them to a variety of character traits adjectives. I like to give students a word bank of character traits to choose from, and we go through the definition of each one so they can fully understand these words. Not only does it help with vocabulary, but it allows students to use more advanced adjectives to describe their character in a deeper way. The character may be “good,” but perhaps a better and more specific word is “empathetic.”
Some common words I have students use from a word bank are: creative, courageous, inventive, accountable, responsible, apathetic, and the list goes on.
If you’re looking for a fun bulletin board or center activity to help teach those character traits vocabulary words, check out our Character Traits Doughnut Sprinkles Bulletin Board which includes 36 positive character traits for your students to learn.
2. Text-Based Evidence
Once students understand the simple concept of characterization, they must show text-based evidence to prove those adjectives that they have chosen from the book. One of the most uncomplicated ways I do this is to have students draw a picture of their character.
Around the picture, they are to list 5 inner character traits and 3 outer character traits. Under each character trait, they are to find a quote from the book that proves this character trait.
It can be shown indirectly through actions, speech, and affect on others, or directly from the author or narrator (and see number 3 when I explain this further). I teach students the MLA citation of quotes. They must put the sentence in quotation marks and cite it by placing a set of parentheses after the quote with the author’s last name and page number inside. When students use text-based evidence, it better equips them when they start writing essays that utilize quotations.
3. Indirect & Direct Characterization
When teaching text-based evidence, you can either wait to explain direct characterization and indirect characterization or explain it beforehand. I choose to wait. My reasoning is that I want students to concentrate on practicing choosing adequate sentences that support their character traits without worrying about it being direct or indirect.
I normally spend a whole lesson or two on indirect and direct characterization, explaining that direct characterization is when the narrator or author directly tells the audience about the character. I use examples from our novel or a past novel that students are familiar with to demonstrate this. Next, we will go over indirect characterization and how that can be shown through the acronym, STEAL.
E-Effect on Others
We utilize this approach to deeply learn about that character. Once your students have conquered indirect and direct characterization, students should combine it with text-based evidence. This can be challenging to not only choose a good supporting sentence from the literary work but to think about it through the lens of indirect or direct characterization.
4. Point of View Writing
Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird states, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.”
As a reader, placing yourself in the character’s shoes is the best approach to learning about him or her. We do this by thinking like the character and imagining ourselves dealing with the same challenges they might be facing.
When I teach Old Yeller, I like to have students take on the role of the main character, Travis, to convince his mother not to keep Old Yeller. (This was at the beginning of the book when he didn’t particularly like the dog.) Students write a letter, thinking like Travis and from his point of view, to his mother conveying his disdain and reasoning for not keeping the dog.
When I teach the novel Esperanza Rising, students write a letter from the mother’s perspective in which she turns down a marriage proposal from the evil Tio Luis. Students also pen a prayer from Esperanza to Our Lady of Guadalupe expressing her sorrows and wishes. If you would like to learn more about my lesson plans for Esperanza Rising, click below.
By writing letters, diary entries, prayers, or any other form of writing that would match the book the best, students are able to put themselves in that character’s shoes, understand the character deeply, and in turn, gain more insight into that character.
5. Compare & Contrast Characters
Characterization can be carried deeper by comparing and contrasting two characters from a book. By viewing a character against another character, we sometimes see how their traits are similar or differing from another. Thus, highlighting the character’s personality even more.
Edmund Burke, a great philosopher, once stated, “He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper.” If we can understand the antagonist, we can understand the main character’s motivations.
Please click below to grab a free Characterization Poster Project. It may be used with any novel. The project has students utilize indirect and direct characterization, text-based evidence, and creativity to compare and contrast two characters. We just completed this project with Wonder by RJ Palaccio, and my students’ work turned out “wonder”fully!
The 5 characterization activities may be utilized with any book your students are reading. Characterization is an important concept for students to learn. Characters drive the plot and theme of a book. Without characters, books would not be worth reading. Characterization helps students understand what they’re reading and even allows them to see themselves in the book. We know that a student that connects with a book is a student that loves a book.