Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Using Dialogue to Characterize

An author can show a great deal about a character's personality simply by what he has the character say.  Is your protagonist a worrier?  Have him say pessimistic things.  Is she trusting to a fault?  Show it through the words she uses to defend a dubious person.

To introduce my students to this skill, I put them in groups of five or more and have them complete the following activity.  I usually set up a few online chat rooms for the lesson, but it can also be done verbally, with one student acting as the group's scribe, or individually, with students creating short scenes involving four or more of the characters.

The Cast of Characters

1. Veronica: Self-absorbed, obsessively concerned about her appearance, insists on being the center of attention
2. Albert:  Extremely intelligent, a know-it-all, likes to use big words
3. Myrtle: Quiet, lacks self-confidence, wants to blend into the background
4. Donna: Pessimistic, gloomy, depressing
5. Mike:  Doesn't take anything seriously, thinks everything he says is hilarious
6. Ralph: Loud, bossy, blunt
7. Paula: Optimistic, cheerful, overly helpful

The Situation
You and a group of people are marooned on a deserted island. Together you will discuss how you're going to survive until a passing cruise ship or airplane spots you.

The Task
  • Each of you has been given a slip of paper with a name and a personality on it. During this activity, everything you say must reflect your character's personality. DO NOT tell anyone anything about your character other than his or her name.  Your job is to SHOW that personality through dialogue.
  • Beginning with Character #1, take turns creating a conversation. Make sure each character has at least five chances to speak.
  • REMEMBER: Your character should be responding to other characters' comments in ways that match his/her personality.
I end this activity by asking students to describe the personalities of their classmates' characters.  Almost invariably, dialogue is enough to reveal each character's basic traits.

Next Week:  Characterization advice from guest blogger Lynne H.