James Van Pelt

Writing Words Fantastical and Otherwise

Category: Characterization

Sunday Writing: Creating Believable High School Characters


The FMHS class of 1986 held their 30th reunion this weekend.  That’s my wife’s graduating class.  We perused the photos and videos that the class posted on their FB website.  The don’t look that old.  I can still see the teenagers in them.

Almost ten years ago, I wrote this article about characterization using the high school classes I was teaching as my examples.  Since I’ll be starting a new school year in another month, I think I’ll do the exercise again.  Has anything changed that I can notice?  How different are they from the class of ’86?

Creating characters must be hard because I read so many unconvincing, thin or cliched characters in fiction.  How high school characters are portrayed often bothers me because so many people default to a handful of stereotypes.  Since I teach high school and really, really, really respect high schoolers as people, it’s particularly upsetting to see them boiled down into predetermined niches.

We administered the ACT test to all of our juniors today.  I proctored for two hours, which involved walking back and forth among the desks for the whole time, I took notes on what I saw.

If you’re interested, here’s raw data from Fruita Monument High School in western Colorado, a predominantly white student body that draws about 2/3 of the kids from upper-middle class suburban neighborhoods and 1/3 from rural ranches and farms.  We have 1,200 students in three grades.

Twenty-one students took the test in the room I proctored, 17 girls and 4 boys, an imbalance caused by the randomness of assigning kids to rooms alphabetically.

–   14 carried cell phones (they couldn’t have cell phones on them during the test, so we had to collect them.  Some of the kids remembered this and didn’t bring a cell phone–clearly I have to buy a cell phone for my 11th grade son!)
–   3 wore hats
–   1 wore a school sweatshirt
–   1 wore a university sweatshirt
–   1 wore a Tigger sweatshirt
–   9 sweatshirts total–none of them were dressed in a style we normally call “preppy”
–   2 Hispanic students, no Black or Asian ones
–   1 facial piercing (a small diamond stud on the side of a nose)
–   2 unnatural hair colors
–   2 wore glasses (lots of contacts?)
–   1 male with an earring
–   6 females with hair below their shoulder blades
–   4 in shorts.  The rest in long pants, mostly jeans.  It’s been a cold spring.

They were all cooperative, quiet and industrious.  Once again, the luck of the draw.  I taught a sophomore class here a couple of years ago that was phenomenally bad.  I took three of the worst out to work on a paper with them alone while my student teacher tried to handle the rest.  The three I had were supposed to be working on a paper about influential people in their lives.  They all wanted to write about their probation officers.

The teacher who teaches in the room I was proctoring in today had the kids do an “I” poster for an assignment.  The kids are supposed to make a collage of who they are.  It reminded me a little of the writing assignment in The Breakfast Club, where the kids who were serving a Saturday detention were supposed to do an essay on who they thought they were.  I broke the posters down into categories:

–   2 pictured guns, one in a hunting context, and the other in a redneck context (to use a stereotype; the poster was hunting rifles and pickups)
–   4 agriculturally centered (livestock, John Deere machinery, etc.)
–   6 sports
–   10 fashion
–   7 music
–   1 overtly religious
–   5 travel
–   6 hunting
–   3 environmental
–   1 sort of disturbing one, that included the phrase, “Every killer lives next door to someone”

So, where am I going with this?  First, when a writer wants to write about high school, he/she has to decide first which high school.  FMHS is like the proverbial elephant being described by a bunch of blind men.  Who your character is determines the high school in the story.  For some individuals, high school is scary.  For others it is fun.  For many, they don’t have much of an opinion about it one way or another.

Here’s something to think about: the very best high schools in America have some kids who are deeply disturbed, lost to drugs, victims (or dealers) of violence, potential psychopaths or profoundly unhappy.  The very worst high schools in America have some kids who are academically excellent, love their classes, are kind to their friends, have good relationships with their parents, and are moving forward into fulfilling and happy lives.

I guess what I’m arguing against here is simplification and stereotypes.  High school students are not simplified versions of adults.  They are not driven by only a single motivation (any more than some adults are driven by a single motivation).  They are complicated, contradictory, fully faceted human beings, capable of cruelty, tenderness, cowardice, bravery and every other emotion you can think of.  They can be clear visioned or confused (sometimes several times in the same day, just like you or me).  Their hurts and their passions are as deep and profound to them as they are to people in their thirties.

If you want to be honest in your portrayal of them, keep in mind that every individual is . . . well . . . individual.

Sunday Writing: a Characterization Exercise


Rear-Window-PosterI’ve become increasingly a believer in getting out of your head and into the world to improve writing. Sometimes the easiest way to to do this is to read more. I’m surprised at how many writers I talk to who are trying to grow themselves as writers who have given up on their youthful reading habits. It turns out that reading time and writing time exactly overlap, so they quit reading. Argh! Big mistake! For myself, I have to keep reading to clear my head of my own rhythms and to remind myself that’s there’s many ways to assemble sentences and stories. Good movies or television can get me out of my head too.

The next way to get out of my head, though, is to get up from where I’m writing and go watch the world, but I have to do it the same way I get out of my head while reading or wa
tching a movie: by being aware that I’m are gathering material. When I go outside as a writer, I take a notebook, and I go by myself. I want to be consciously aware that I’m paying attention to help writing.

Here, I’ll give you an example exercise that I used with high school students to help them create more realistic characters (instead of the shallow, cliched, weak echoes of human beings they’d write on their own) that involves getting them out of their desks.

The students want to write characters from scratch, but let’s face it, most of us don’t have enough in our heads to produce the detail that makes fiction work. Since I told them they needed four attributes to be writers: an ability to observe, a felicity with language, a willingness to make connections, and something to say, this exercise works on an ability to observe. It’s a fun one. It makes the students observe real people and makes them look at the world in a new way.  I have the students pick a teacher to do this to, but you could do it anywhere, as long as you have enough time to watch a real person in action.

By the way, you need to be unobtrusive with this exercise.  From the outside, it can look like stalking.  And, if you’re Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, you’re just plain creepy.

Here’s the assignment for the students:

Turning a Real Person into a Fictional Character

Since the very best fiction convinces us that its characters are real, and that their hopes, dreams and tragedies are genuine, it makes sense to study the qualities of real people so we can create fictional ones more convincingly. For this exercise, you are to sit in on a teacher’s class and study them in a variety of ways. Remember that tiny details bring anything into a tighter focus, so what you will be looking for are the most revealing, unique elements to include in your character sketch.

I. Physical Description
A. QUICK INVENTORY: List the physical details about the teacher you are observing that you would give if you were filling out a missing person report. Include height, weight, build, hair and eye color, hair style, distinguishing marks and clothing. This can be done as a list.

B. UNIQUE DETAILS: List any unique details about the teacher you are observing that would separate them from others of similar height and build. This could be a close look at their face, for example. Be observant!

II. Mannerisms
A. HAND GESTURES: Describe how this teacher uses his/her hands as she/he talks. Does he/she hold something?

B. POSTURE AND BODY MOVEMENTS: Describe how this teacher holds her/his body. Is there a slouch? Is there an almost military stiffness to the back? Does the person appear flexible, rigid, fluid, jerky, etc.? Does the teacher move around a lot (and how is this movement done) or does she/he stay still?

C. EYE MOVEMENT: What does this teacher look at when he/she talks? Is there eye contact? Does the teacher seem engaged in the classroom or are the eyes elsewhere? Are the eyes unusually wide or narrow? Does the teacher blink a lot or not? Do the eyes seem the windows to this teacher’s personality?

III. Speech
A. TONE OF VOICE: What does the teacher’s voice sound like? Is the delivery quick, halting, loud, soft? Are there variances in tone? What could the voice best be compared to? Does the voice trail off at the end of sentences? Does it rise at the end of sentences? What kind of words are emphasized?

B. WORD CHOICE: What kind of things does this teacher say? Record verbatim several of this teacher’s utterances. What seem to be this teacher’s favorite way of beginning a sentence? Are most of the sentences questions? facts? instruction? Are most of the things said directed to the class as a whole or to individuals?

IV. Synthesis: The Character Sketch
Write a one to two paragraph character sketch of this teacher as if you were introducing him/her as a character in a short story. You will probably have to give the character sketch a brief setting and situation like, “I sat in the back of the classroom watching the new teacher,” or something else to provide a reason for the description. Try to make your teacher character as vivid and detailed as possible using the details from your observations above. Be sure to emphasize the details that capture not only the teacher’s appearance but also the teacher’s personality.

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