How do you create a character that feels three-dimensional? One that readers can immediately picture and connect with? While there are many ways to approach this, I find that the simplest way to quickly nail a character is with details.
One of my favorite books about writing, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, offers this wonderful bit of advice: “Often, a well-chosen detail can tell us more about a character—his social and economic status, his hopes and dreams, his vision of himself—than a long explanatory passage.”
The right detail can be an adjective, an action or even a gesture, but it has to be purposeful and specific.
In the opening scene of my middle-grade novel Ginny Off the Map, readers meet eleven-year-old Ginny Pierce, who, on the last day of school, does something pretty unusual.
My foot jiggles nervously under my desk. This morning we were told to collect all of our textbooks from our lockers and desks and place them in the designated piles at the front of the room. And I did—I returned all of them. Except one.
The Inspiring World of Earth Science is still in my backpack, which is tucked under my desk with my jiggling foot. My copy is old and battered, with rounded corners. The cover is sticky. Inside, it contains chapters on oceanography, hydrology, and atmospheric science. There are project guides detailing how to build a model volcano, how to re-create the formation of Hawaii, and how to make your own power station using the heat that fuels volcanic eruptions.
I love volcanoes. They are the earth literally turning itself inside out.
I don’t want to hand in this textbook. I was hoping the last day of school would be so busy that Mr. Sonito would forget all about it and I could keep it.
“I can’t find it,” I say. “I must have left it at home.”
Ginny lies to her teacher’s face and hides her science textbook because she wants to keep it so badly. This is the detail I chose to introduce her with, because I felt it said so much more than just an explanation of how smart she is, how much she loves science, and how different she is from most of the kids in her class, who were more than happy to hand in their books and head out the door for summer.
Coming up with unique character details can be a lot of fun. Try the following exercises to get the ideas flowing.
Exercise # 1 – Brainstorm Details
How do you get better at brainstorming details? Notice what’s around you! Have students spend a few minutes writing down a detailed description of the room they’re sitting in. Have them describe the person sitting next to them. Have them describe their breakfast, or something interesting they saw on the way to class. Good writing begins with paying attention!
Exercise # 2 – Name That Character
Ask students to think about a favorite character from a book or movie and try to recall a specific, revealing detail or action about that character. Ask them to describe the detail to their classmates, without naming the character or book/movie, and see if anyone can guess who the character is.
Exercise # 3 – Mix and Match
Write two lists on the board. One list should include potential characters, such as a grandmother, toddler, neighbor, friend, and coworker. The second list should include adjectives, such as optimistic, ornery, nervous, silly, flexible, and irrational. Draw lines at random between the characters and the adjectives to match them up, then give each student a matched set, such as an irrational neighbor or a silly grandmother, and have them come up with a specific detail describing their person. Share them with the class and discuss.
As Francine Prose said, “Details are what persuade us that someone is telling the truth.” Make sure to pay attention to all the interesting, ordinary things around you, and your writing will be better for it!
Published June 20th, 2023 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
About the Book: There are two things Ginny Pierce loves most in the world: geography facts and her father. But when her dad is deployed overseas and Ginny’s family must move to yet another town, not even her facts can keep her afloat. The geography camp she’s been anxiously awaiting gets canceled, and her new neighbors prefer her basketball-star sister. Worst of all, her dad is in a war zone and impossible to get ahold of. Ginny decides that running her own camp for the kids on her street will solve all her problems. But can she convince them (and herself) that there’s more to her than just facts?
With a fierce heart and steadfast determination, Ginny tackles the challenges and rewards of staying true to herself during a season of growth. This thoughtful novel explores the strength that develops through adversity; Ginny must learn to trust her inner compass as she navigates the world around her.
About the Author: Caroline Hickeylearned her world capitals by playing Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego in the 80s. She has since lived in more places than Ginny, her favorite being London, England. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School in New York City and is the author of Cassie Was Here, Isabelle’s Boyfriend, and many popular series books. She currently lives just outside Washington, DC with her husband, two daughters, and a labradoodle. Visit her at carolinehickey.com.
Thank you, Caroline, for these activities to add some more description into our students’ writing!