How to Create a Character
Strong characters bring a story to life. But how can your students make characters that seem real? When I'm creating a character, I look at myself and my own life.
When I was writing Long Shot, I gave Laurie Bird Preston a lot of problems to overcome. I made her leave her hometown, move in with a grandmother she didn't really know, and start a new school. By then, I felt sorry for Laurie. I decided to give her a friend.
Quirky and clumsy Howard Goldstein, the first person to make Laurie feel welcome in Compton, is based on me when I was Howard's age. No, I didn't fall down every thirty seconds as Howard does. But I did go through a stage when my body was growing and changing faster than I could keep up with it. I felt as clumsy as Howard. Remembering those awkward feelings helped me create situations for Howard to struggle through.
I couldn't get enough of major league baseball. I subscribed to Baseball Digest and The Sporting News. I collected baseball cards and seldom left home without a pocketful of duplicates to trade for cards I needed. I pored over the sports section of the newspaper, especially on Sundays, when they printed the batting and pitching records of all the players. Today, newspapers and magazines aren't as popular as they once were. To modernize Howard, I gave him a laptop. He studies the Internet the way I once scanned the sports page, looking for the details that bring the players to life.
In other ways, I made Howard how I wanted to be rather than how I actually was. I liked to think of myself as a nice guy, a person who was friendly to everyone. Did I act that way? Sometimes. But I can remember other times when I hurt people's feelings by teasing them more than I should have. I made Howard the type of warm, accepting person that I wished I could have been, the type of person who would be a great friend.
In Long Shot, Howard is plagued by two bullies, Butch and Eddie. I had few problems with bullies, but there were times at school when I worried that I might be picked on. We've all had to walk down that long hallway or through that locker room, past a group of older kids whom we found a little frightening. So I gave Howard that problem, too.
So to create a convincing character, have your students look at their own lives. Convincing characters, like real people, are complex. If your students need some help getting started, have them ask themselves these questions: What are my strengths? What things give me trouble? What kind of person would I like to be? What bad habits do I have? What hobbies or interests of mine would be fun to write or read about?
Good luck to your students!