Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Notes on Teaching: Character Sketches for ENG100

For the past year, I've been using "Halibut", a short story from Etgar Keret's book The Nimrod Flip Out, which can be found on Google Books here.  Keret is an Israeli writer (website here), whose book Kneller's Happy Campers was turned into the indie movie Wristcutters: A Love Story (trailer, below).

I love "Halibut" because its plot and characters are malleable enough to make your own. In the larger context of the book, "Halibut" is a central vignette of conflict. However, alone, "Halibut" is a great story which can act as a skeleton for students to adopt and build upon. In the past I've seen students effectively create pasts, presents, and futures based on Keret's characters: the depressed narrator, the narrator's egoistical friend Ari, Ari's hated fiance Nessia, the mysterious and beautiful waitress, and the talking fish (a.k.a. the halibut). The story has everything: place, business, friendship, power structure, recession, love story, psychology, war, and so on.

Below is an assignment sheet I give students after they have written their rhetorical analysis paper. Creative writing is something the students get excited about (especially after they finished analyzing advertisements, reality television, and Roland Barthes), so I see this assignment working in two ways: (1) students become attentive to the language they already use in their papers, as well as the language they want to use in all their writings and (2) students exercise their imaginations, working towards embracing subjectivity and creativity without developing critical-thinking atrophy. 

For this assignment, students take devices that they learned from poetry and put them into practice: point of view, description, dialogue, narrative, analogy, and sound. I'm sure this assignment can be adopted and used in introduction to creative writing courses. 

As with most of my assignments these days, I have students write metacommentaries to accompany their assignments.  Writing about the writing process helps them inevitably become better readers of their own work. They document their feelings about the type of writing they're engaged in, as well as the challenges they face. This way, at the end of the semester, when they write a reflective essay (for their in-class final) they can look back at their metacommentaries and see how and where they've improved, identify (specifically) what they still need to work on, and what part(s) of writing they find enjoyable (that is the hope, anyway).

Character Sketch
ENG100 / FALL 2010

A character sketch introduces the reader to someone. It is a short vignette that shows the audience how this person looks, talks, acts, thinks and feels. Most importantly, it should show what makes this person unique.

PART 1: Character Sketch

Write a 750-word character sketch, which represents one of the characters in Etgar Keret’s “Halibut.” (2-3 pages)

You may root your character sketch in a narrative that you create, or a recreation of Keret’s story (for example, a beginning could sound something like: “Ruth, the waitress from ‘Halibut’ was born in 1948 on a small island in the Mediterranean. She came to Jerusalem as a student, but found the city to be too expensive, so she had to work. As she sits in the break room of the restaurant she works evenings at, she remembers her small island and the family she left behind.”).

Be creative, and have fun!

These are the tools you MUST use:

1. Point of View: How will you write this character sketch? Will you write it from the P.O.V. of the character, the character’s friend, neighbor, family member, or spouse? The P.O.V. speaks to the ethos, pathos, and logos of character sketch. You should decide what kind of emotional reaction you want the reader to have in relationship to this person.

2. Description: How does this character look, act, and feel? Where does this character live? What does this place look, feel, taste, smell, and sound like? Use metaphors and similes when necessary to strengthen your descriptions. What kind of details can you select to create that emotional reaction? Avoid making broad characterizing statements; instead, let the details you give suggest general characteristics. Let the reader draw his or her own conclusions.

3. Dialogue: Using dialogue makes it easy to convey how the character speaks, as well as how the character interacts with others.

4. Narrative: What has happened or happens to this character? You may write about this character’s future, this character’s past, or re-write “Halibut” by using the inner thoughts of this character. You might even want to write a character sketch where you describe an encounter you had with this character. If you choose to do this, you could describe a place that is important to the character you are describing, focusing on things in the scene that are representative of that character. How is this character dressed? What happened as you spent time together? From time to time, describe the person's gestures or facial expressions, use dialogue, and always be descriptive!

5. Analogy: Use simile and metaphor to make your descriptions as unique as the character you create! What do you things look, smell, feel, taste, and sound like? Use metaphors to make your readers think deeply about these characters. Use them to make the reader see multiple images, hear a variety of sounds, taste a multitude of flavors, smell all the particles in the air, and feel layers of the world.

6. Sound: Just like poems, the stories we tell have tones, dialects, and rhythms. How does your character speak? How does the tone of your sketch help the reader imagine the character you create? The language the writer uses determines the way or ways the reader(s) imagine the character.

PART 2: Metacommentary

You will write a 250-word meta-commentary, where you will explain your writing process (why and how did you decide to write about this character?), the ethos, pathos, and logos of the piece you created (what choices did you make as a writer to choose the P.O.V., descriptions, narrative, and so on?), and why your character sketch is a good representation of this character. How is this kind of writing different from other kinds of writings you’ve done in this class (blog posts, letters, presentations, rhetorical analysis, etc.) and beyond?

You will be graded on:

1. Directions: Did you follow all the directions for the assignment? Have you titled your piece?
2. Maturity of thought: Does this piece make the reader think about language and how it can be used to convey different messages? Does the writing go beyond surface level meanings and explanations?
3. Creativity: Is your writing original? Does your language reflect the character you create? Did you use your imagination to write this piece? Does your piece have a hook? Does your ending make the reader want more?
4. Use of the 6 tools: Did you think about and use P.O.V., description, dialogue, narrative, analogy, and sound to create a believable character?
5. Metacommentary: Did you reflect maturely on your writing process? Have you located places where the writing needs work, or places where the writing is strong? Are you critical and reflective?

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