We were looking at character in my eighth-grade English class. We had done the standard – what they do, what they say, what others say about them, but I wanted them to look deeper. I wanted my students to draw conclusions and see the patterns and meaning behind the character’s behavior.
Because that is when things get interesting.
Why do they do what they do? Why do surface traits contrast with deeper beliefs? What does that say about the character?
We are reading To Kill a Mockingbird which contains so many great characters, but we also tried this technique with a short story and it worked beautifully (“In Your Hat” by Ellen Conford).
I found a discussion of dimensions in Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. You can find a lot of great techniques for breaking down story parts at Brooks’s website – storyfix.com. It is a great site for anyone trying to teach or learn the structure underlying stories.
The technique asked writers to look at three dimensions of character:
The first dimension – What you see on the surface of a character and their interactions with their world. We looked at Scout’s first dimension. She spends long summer days with her brother Jem and Dill. She wears overalls and occasionally tries out a little cussing. She fights unless Atticus tells her not to.
The second dimension – Why the character does and says the things they do. I loved what my students discovered about Scout when we started to discuss this dimension. They pointed out that she doesn’t have a mother, so it is probably important that she fit in with the boys. They argued that while Jem is growing up, Scout is finding her identity in a town that likes to stereotype. I was blown away by their ability to take their thinking deeper when they had a method to guide them.
The third dimension – The choices a character makes and actions they take when the stakes are high. We discussed the possibility that Scout is torn between fitting in and standing out. She wants to be her own person, but she also wants to be a part of society.
After learning how to navigate the dimensions, the students filled in a simple three box chart to brainstorm the first, second, and third dimensions and wrote an essay on a character from To Kill a Mockingbird. They had much more to say after thinking about the layers of character.
Next week, we are using this technique on our own short stories. I hope it helps give the dying soldiers, broken-hearted girls, Soviet spies, and post-apocolyptic survivors populating our stories the texture readers expect and deserve.