Driving Miss Daisy

limousineWhen I was a kid, one of my neigh­bor­hood gang’s favorite sum­mer games was to “play chauf­feur.” We’d jump on our bikes and gath­er for shoptalk at chauf­feur head­quar­ters (a.k.a. the mid­dle of our qui­et side street). Then we’d race off in dif­fer­ent direc­tions to pick up mem­bers of the envi­ably wealthy and pam­pered (yet of course imag­i­nary) fam­i­lies that uti­lized our dri­ving services.

A big part of the fun was that we each got to invent detailed back sto­ries for our fan­ta­sy employ­ers, con­struct­ing elab­o­rate sce­nar­ios around the par­ents’ demand­ing work, the children’s exot­ic activ­i­ties, and a mul­ti­tude of over­heard back­seat bat­tles — all while dri­ving “our fam­i­lies” along the street and up and down var­i­ous dri­ve­ways and around Blue Jay Way (the dirt path that curved through Mrs. Elliott’s yard). And then we’d all meet up again at chauf­feur head­quar­ters to trade sto­ries about our family’s doings, seed­ing each other’s imag­i­na­tions for poten­tial new gos­sip-wor­thy devel­op­ments for the next day.

When I talk with writ­ers about devel­op­ing their char­ac­ters, I encour­age them to devel­op such detailed biogra­phies for their char­ac­ters that it seems as if they are spy­ing on them from the van­tage point of a trust­ed fam­i­ly ser­vant. I know from my own expe­ri­ence that even details that don’t make it into my sto­ries still inform my work in an impor­tant way.

I’ve cre­at­ed mul­ti-gen­er­a­tional fam­i­ly trees and imag­i­nary iTunes lists for past char­ac­ters. So at some ear­ly point in your stu­dents’ sto­ry-writ­ing jour­ney, have them try the fol­low­ing char­ac­ter-devel­op­ment brain­storm­ing activity.

banana seatFirst, ask them to cre­ate a list of details about their main char­ac­ter: name, age, likes and dis­likes, per­son­al­i­ty traits, phys­i­cal details, report card grades, lock­er con­tents, secret crush­es. Once they have a list start­ed but seem to be run­ning out of steam on their own, have stu­dents divide into small groups. Ask them to take turns going around the group, adding one more detail about their char­ac­ter each time it’s their turn. Even those whose lists weren’t long to begin with will have their group’s exam­ples as inspi­ra­tion for more ideas.

I bet you the banana seat off my old bike that if you try this sim­ple exer­cise, your stu­dents will dis­cov­er, with each other’s help, new details to help ful­ly flesh out their characters.

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