I actually got the idea for this activity from The Bedford Introduction to Literature (10th edition) edited by Michael Meyer. One of the creative response assignment suggestions is to have students write an obituary for the character of Penny from the play Dead Right by Elaine Jarvik.
In order to have students complete the obituary and to understand both characters, I had them do this little activity, which I think I’m going to use to introduce/explore characterization from now on. This activity is much more effective than asking the students to “characterize” a specific character or to describe the character’s traits. It teaches them how, exactly, to do that and where they get the information to characterize the characters.
In the book, Dead Right is a short play that covers four pages. I assigned the students one of the four pages to read. I then broke down the activity in the following steps.
1. Write down the facts the audience is given about Penny and the facts the audience is given about Bill. (I remind them that facts cannot be argued. Some of my students also think that they can remember everything they read, so I tell them that they have to actually write the facts down.)
2. Now, write down how you would describe each of their personalities (in other words, their character traits) and what words/quotes from the play help you characterize them that way.
3. Then, we went over the facts and character traits, starting with the facts about a character before moving onto their traits. I put the lists up on the projector. This was an excellent way to reinforce the difference between facts (or details) and character traits. While doing the facts, students would sometimes say that a character was, say, “self-centered” or “rude” and I was able to say, “Well, that can be argued, so you’re moving into character traits. We’re doing facts now. Hold onto that for a minute.”
4. During the character traits discussion, I would always ask what made them describe the character that particular way and, most of the time, they referred back to the facts on the board or details from their assigned page.
5. Once our discussion was over, they were assigned to write Penny’s obituary as she herself would write it or as her husband Bill would write it. (I assigned them to either Penny or Bill.)
That last bit is also a little bit of a test in reading comprehension since Penny says exactly how she wants her obituary written. I always ask my students to share if they’re willing. If they’re not, I ask them what they did, so we can discuss their choices and why they made those particular choices. Students usually think they just come up with details in their writing out of their heads, so I use those moments as an opportunity to show them how they use details from the text in their own writing or how the details from the text inform their writing.
As I said, though, this can be easily adapted for another play or with different characters. My plan is to use this activity (minus the obituary) with a short story. That should be particularly interesting because that story is told with a first-person narrator. We’ll see how it goes.
This work by Akilah @ The Englishist is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.