Helping pupils to develop more effective characters in their story writing


Effective characterisation is not achieved by describing visual features alone (‘He had a light blue top with a faded, frayed collar’) but rather by balancing this kind of descriptive writing with action, motive and a trait, or traits. As motive and actions (and therefore, to some degree, plot) evolve from the characters/s’ temperament/s, emphasising this aspect of characterisation in our teaching leads to more ‘rounded’ characters in pupils’ stories.

A successful method of achieving this is for the teacher to dramatise particular character traits and then ask the pupils
‘What kind of character am I ?’

The author begins with sad, happy, angry and shy , all of which are easy to render dramatically. Pupils are then invited to dramatise, or suggest, other character traits. If the pupils are reluctant to dramatise further traits the teacher may wish to continue with some of the following : lazy, cruel, greedy, jealous, confident, talkative, helpful, argumentative, cunning etc.

After a list of traits has been generated it is usually possible to reinforce previous work on synonyms by grouping some of the words on a basis of similarity e.g.
happy, joyful, cheerful, blissful
sad, unhappy, cheerless, miserable etc.

This activity also provides an opportunity to discuss / use a Thesaurus in a meaningful context.

One of the traits is then chosen and the teacher explains that a game of ‘Show not Tell’ is going to take place. A sentence, which includes the chosen trait, is then written for all to see e.g.

He / She was sad.

The teacher explains (whilst writing ‘TELL’ before the sentence) that this is ‘telling’ the reader about the character. It is then explained that it is better to ‘show’ the reader what kind of character is developing by describing things that such a character would do ! The word ‘SHOW’ is then written under the sentence already on the board and the teacher asks the following question.
‘If I came into the classroom and I was sad what would I do ?’

The sentence starter ‘He—‘ is then written after the word ‘SHOW’ and the pupils are invited to suggest ways of continuing the sentence which demonstrate what a sad person would do e.g.
‘He cried a lot’

At this stage in the modelling of ‘Show not Tell’ process, judicious teacher interventions and questioning can maximise the learning opportunities ;

Firstly the teacher can place a range of connectives between each of the pupils’ suggestions, thereby avoiding the ‘and then—–and then’ trap ! Secondly the teacher can extend answers through careful questioning :

Teacher : What did he do ?
Pupil : He wept ?
Teacher : How did he weep ?
Pupil : (No answer)
Teacher : Can you give me a word that will ‘go’ after wept which will describe how he wept ?
Pupil : bitterly etc.

The final question, asked by the teacher, in the above sequence could be replaced with,
‘Can you give me an adverb of manner which we could place after the word wept ?’
The complexity of the questioning is determined by both prior and future learning.

When the process has been completed the pupils are asked to compare the two approaches ‘Show’ and ‘Tell’ and to describe which works best. As there is clearly no competition the pupils are then asked to work collaboratively (pairs – fours) on a further trait selected from the list. Dead-lining functions as a useful motivator (‘You now have ten minutes to complete the ‘Show not tell’ challenge !) as does explaining that they will be required to read their piece to the rest of the class who will be invited to guess which trait they have chosen.

The activity can be differentiated so that ‘more able’ pupils develop more complex multi – faceted characters. To achieve this, two methods can be applied.

1. The pupils are asked to choose two (or three traits) to be combined in their character description so that the final piece of writing evokes a character who is both shy and sad ; both happy and talkative ; both cheerless and lazy etc. The teacher can then discuss how events in a story can alter the character trait of their protagonist or antagonist e.g. A happy character is involved in a plane crash which traumatises him /her. After the event he / she is both sad and shy.

Clearly this approach can only be taken after the teacher is sure that the pupil has understood the ‘Show not Tell’ process using a single character trait.

2. The second method of eliciting more complex characterisation is to consider trait development. This is best achieved through modelling but essentially the story begins with the character exhibiting infrequent aspects of their trait. As the story develops so does the trait so that, for example, a character who, at the beginning of the story is mildly annoyed becomes, by the end of the story,very angry. Incidents which occur throughout the narrative will influence the the development of the specific trait.The interrelationship between plot and character development makes this quite complicated at Key Stage 2. It is , however, achievable with more able Y4 – 6 pupils. An interim stage, which the author uses, is to focus (after single trait writing) on analysis of characters in books which the pupils are reading. The undoubted benefit of this is that the link between reading and writing is made explicit. A grid like the one below can be used by pupils to consider how authors create multi – faceted characters.


Name of character: Title of book: Author:
Trait Very (quote evidence and page number) Quite (quote evidence and page number) Not a lot (quote evidence and page number) Not at all (quote evidence and page number)


The column of traits on the left should be altered by the teacher so that it relates specifically to the book being read. It should be noted that some characters in published books are, sadly, uni – dimensional ; for this reason books should be pre – selected by the teacher.

A further aspect of characterisation which can be developed through direct teaching is interaction. This can easily be linked to trait development so that a shy person, for example, talks infrequently to others ; speaks in short sentences ; never instigates conversations etc. The same approach works with other traits and explicit discussion (and modelling) of this should help pupils to integrate the process into their own story writing.

In conclusion, effective characterisation is achieved by focusing on much more than what a person is wearing. The busy teacher needs practical strategies to raise the standard of pupils’ writing. It has been the aim of this article to provide a range of new, practical, ideas which will assist in developing the ability of pupils to evoke believable characters in their narrative writing.