Ruby Red Pens

By Michael Overa, WITS Writer-in-Residence

How do we describe certain characters? The first words that spring to mind are inevitably generic. A character is a boy or a girl, young or old. But, if we want to be specific we have to say that a character is a self-conscious orphan with unknown magical powers. Or something like that.

At TOPS K-8, I start our discussion of character by handing out three by five cards and instructing students to write three adjectives about themselves (or adjective phrases) on one side of the card. They are not to put their name anywhere on the note card.

And then I collect the cards, shuffle them, and explain the rules of the game.

Rule 1: Once I read the three adjectives aloud the class will have three guesses to identify the card’s rightful owner.

Rule 2: There are to be no criticisms (i.e.: That can’t be so-and-so, he’s not smart).

Rule 3: The owner has to admit as soon as his/her name is guessed.

Perhaps not surprisingly the students enjoy this get-to-know you game. As they guess each other’s names, I write the student’s name on the back of the card, which gives me one way to begin to learn the students’ names. It also helps me get an idea about the unique chemistry of the class.

At the same time, I have started them thinking about character. How do we explain a character? What is the difference between a generic character and a dynamic character? And from there, we delve into the creation of their own original characters.

The note cards have given us a way to start to talk about character and a way to get to know each other.

So, when we get to the creation of unique characters the students have another frame of reference from which to create their fictional characters. Granted, that frame of reference is themselves. Eventually they end up surprising themselves (and me) with what they’ve written.

And that’s my favorite part; it’s what I think of as the Wizard of Oz moment. I get to stand back and say: “You’ve had that power all along.”


For this exercise students were asked to take a newly created character and create a short scene in which the character would be embarrassed. This stems out of our work creating dynamic characters by taking into account not only the character’s strengths and weaknesses, but the character’s wants, desires, and needs.

“The room was nearly obliterated. Gregory was slumped in the corner of his room, tracing the scratches etched into the dusty floor, avoiding the occasional clump of hair or feathers from the pillows. He felt his oddly shaven head and thought about how his mom, or his friends, or worse – the class – would react to this. He’ll be the laughing stock. I’ll never get Lily’s attention, he thought.” – Kenji N, Grade 7

“Charlotte walked along the dusty path toward the lunch area. She wiped sweat of her brow and quickened her pace. She hated this lonely walk. She didn’t mind being friendless in class where she could list attentively, or at lunch where she could sit hidden in the shade of the willow tree by the gurgling brook, but in the bright sunshine there was nowhere to hide. Charlotte felt a tap on her shoulder. She jumped and whirled around. There stood Beth, the nicest girl in school.” –Evelyn C, Grade 7.


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