Exploring Our Common Humanity: Characterization of People and Place Cory Snow English/Language Arts Teacher Skyview High School, Billings, MT Montana Writing Project Summer Institute-East, Joliet, MT Standards Met W.11-12.3a a. Engage and orient the reader by setting out a problem, situation, or observation and its significance, establishing one or multiple point(s) of view, and introducing a narrator and/or characters; create a smooth progression of experiences or events. W.11-12.3b b. Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, description, reflection, and multiple plot lines, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters. W.11-12.3c c. Use a variety of techniques to sequence events so that they build on one another to create a coherent whole and build toward a particular tone and outcome (e.g., a sense of mystery, suspense, growth, or resolution). W.11-12.3d d. Use precise words and phrases, telling details, and sensory language to convey a vivid picture of the experiences, events, setting, and/or characters. RL.11-12.3 Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama, or oral or written history (e.g., where a story is set, how RL.11-12.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful. (Include Shakespeare, works by American Indian authors, as well as other authors.) RL.11-12.5 Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact. the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed). RL.11-12.7 Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), or traditional American Indian oral histories, evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.) Inquiry I teach upper level English courses which are, by school district mandate, very heavy on literature. My students tend to dislike many of their English courses throughout high school because they have to read things that don’t resonate with them, are difficult to understand, or are just really old, outdated, and archaic. How can I as an educator bring my learners to a place where they can evaluate the work critically when most have little or no motivation to read the text in the first place? By shoving it down their throats? By making tests, quizzes and formal essays worth so many points that the students fail if they do poorly? By spoon-feeding the material to them, coddling and babying them the whole time? No. High school students—who by the way are human beings just like everybody else (though I can see why people would have doubts)—crave connections with other human beings. It’s the way we are. So through studying the usage of characterization to create dynamic, powerful accessible characters in all forms of media, past and present, I hope to convince these young people that these works they are so dreading have worth to their lives in the 21st century. Overview Think of the last novel you enjoyed (The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman), the last movie you recommended to an acquaintance(The Boondock Saints), the last TV show you just had to see every week (Lost). Chances are you did so because of the ability of that medium to convey to you rich, deep, believable characters full of emotion and real-life human connection. In short, you gave a crap about these people even though they weren’t real. They were, for a time, real enough for you to make a real connection to the plight(s) they faced. We crave these kinds of connections to others, and we’ll take them any way we can get them. For some, the more traditional mediums of books, TV, movies, comics, and the like fill the need. Others look to online gaming communities or incessant texting, tweeting, poking, facebooking or whatever social networking medium du jour is popular to get their human connection fix. The development of many of these forms of entertainment (or time wasting activities as some would call them) offers a safe, consistent, one-way connection that can be severed at any time, unlike a real life, flesh-to-flesh, face-to-face human relationship. We make similar connections to place, especially the place we grew up, as well, where this place almost literally becomes a character in our life. Rationale Evolutionary Psychobiologist Paul MacLean researched the difference between the brains of mammals and the brains of reptiles, and found that an area of the limbic system called the thalamocingulate division is largely responsible for mammals’ hunger for family and community connections; and there is no reptilian counterpart. Homo sapiens, in fact, have the largest thalamocingulate division in the animal kingdom (Gallagher 179). It is a physical necessity to share common human experiences with one another. If the thalamocingulate division of the limbic system is starved, we literally cease to function correctly. In my classroom, I operate under one basic assumption: that each of the kids that enters through my doorway is, at heart, a decent human being. This is an important assumption because it simultaneously ensures that I do my best to treat them fairly, and it allows me to have certain expectations of their behavior, which then informs my teaching and overall classroom management. I believe that decent human beings do not go out of their way to hurt others. But hurting happens, and when it does, decent human beings act to make what’s wrong right again. So based on this, I aspire to create a safe, open environment for students to share and to make connections to other human beings they might not done so originally. Another way of making connections is to characters in a story. It does not matter what medium is being analyzed or enjoyed—a classic novel, a popular movie, a serialized television drama, a comic strip—the creator of that work’s main job is to get people invested in the characters from that work. If the creator of the work fails in that task, then nobody cares about the work and it either never gets published/released or fades into oblivion. So these works that high school students are forced to work with, like it or not (and yes, I’m in the “not” category for Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird, and no, I’m never going to like those works) have withstood the test of time and the rigors of criticism. Though I may not enjoy reading the two works I mentioned, I can appreciate the ability of these authors to construct memorable characters that have become ingrained in our academic culture and popular society. They have become a common human experience in much of America. Not only can a student relate the youthfulness of a Scout Finch or a Huck Finn but a goal of presenting and analyzing these works should be to create empathy for characters like Jim or Tom Robinson. Writers craft their stories in a variety of ways. Sometimes the characters may be vivid in the writer’s mind before the world, sometimes a world or a place is so exciting that a story begs to be told about it, and the building of people to inhabit this world comes later. Sometimes a writer just fills a notebook or types until it all comes together (Card 63-66). But when analyzing characterization we can look it the craft through the following four lenses: 1. 2. 3. 4. What the character looks like What the character says What the character does What the character thinks or feels Writers create characters through showing, telling, or a combination of the two (LaPlante 423-427). Once students are able to able to see how a writer is enticing you into making that connection, it becomes easier to integrate these principles into one’s own writing. Though crafting believable characters isn’t a large part of the curriculum I teach, literary analysis certainly is. The analysis of characters—their connections with us the readers, with other characters in the work, their motivations, their nuances, their interaction with their environment, etc—is usually a fantastic starting point for fulfilling the requirements of a rigid curricula. Because, what really, is classic literature but an interpretation of the common human condition which simultaneously plagues and blesses us all? Once the methods of characterization are learned, one can then look at his or her self with a critical eye. Even further, one can identify one’s self within the scope of a place-based environment—an environment which provides motivation and freedom to act the way one does. Placing one’s self in this context, one can then apply that lens to analyzing literature through characterization as controlled through one’s environment. Sherman Alexie gives a great example of this in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. In describing life on the reservation he says, “Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor” (13). Often we identify ourselves through our environment, especially when we’re somewhere else. I often interject that I’m from Butte and allow all the connotation that goes along with it because it’s different and helps to give me an identity separate from those around me. I am unique and have the freedom to act the way I do because of my upbringing in that place. Process - - - - - Intro to self (what I teach & how). Suggest new lens – teacher as human being. (5 minutes) Activity 1: Think about the person/people with which you feel the most safe (the most “decent human being” you know). Tell me a little about this person. You don’t have to give a name if you don’t want to, but in your writers’ notebook, simply introduce me to this person in the manner you see fit. (10 minutes) Sharing time (5-10 minutes) Relate sharing time to characterization, a set of techniques writers use to introduce us to the people they want us to care about—the people we HAVE TO CARE ABOUT OR THEY ARE OUT OF A JOB. Pass out the four aspects of characterization (what ch. looks like, says, does, thinks/feels). Discuss the advantages and drawbacks faced by written media versus visual media. (5 minutes) Activity 2: Split into 4 groups. Pass out Revenge is My Middle Name, by Sherman Alexie. Have each group look at a different aspect of characterization from the passage. Have them jot down what they notice while reading, share in small group, then pick a spokesperson to share for the larger group. (15 minutes) Same groups, different lens. Show clip from House (5 minutes) Share small group, then large group (5 minutes) Relate characterization to place. The rez in Alexie, the island from Lost. Show 4 minute King Arthur clip. Jot down what you notice of the place, and thoughts on what the characters say about “home.” Share. (10 minutes) Share passage from “Branding,” from Kipp. Think about “home.” Try to distill it down to one or two sentences, then share. (15 minutes) Lesson time – 70-85 minutes Bibliography and Further Reading About Characterization Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2007. Print. Berry, Dave. Dave Berry’s Complete Guide to Guys. New York: Random House, 1995. Print. Card, Orson Scott. Enders Game. New York: Tor Books, 1977. Print. Card, Orson Scott How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 1990. Print. Dean, Nancy. Voice Lessons: Classroom Activities to Teach Diction, Detail, Imagery, Syntax, & More. Gainesville, FL: Maupin House, 2000. Print. Gallagher, Winifred. The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions. New York: Harper Perennial/Harper Collins, 1993. Print. Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Boston: Shambhala, 1986. Print. Halpern, Justin. Sh*t My Dad Says. New York: Harper Collins It Books, 2010. Print Kempton, Gloria. Write Great Fiction: Dialogue. Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Effective Dialogue. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2004. Print. King Arthur. Dir. Antoine Fuqua. Perf. Clive Owen, Kiera Knightley, Ioan Gruffudd. Touchstone, 2004. Film. King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Pocket Books, 2000. Print. Kipp, Woody. Viet Cong at Wounded Knee: The Trail of a Blackfeet Activist. Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 2004. Print. LaPlante, Alice. The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007. Print. Perl, Sondra, & Schuster, Charles, eds. Stepping On My Brother’s Head. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann/Boynton/Cook, 2010. Print. “Pilot Episode.” House, MD. Fox. KHMT, Billings, MT. 16 Nov. 2004. Television. Romano, Tom. Writing With Passion: Life Stories, Multiple Genres. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann/Boynton/Cook, 1995. Print. Simmons, Bill. The Book of Basketball: the NBA According to the Sports Guy. New York: ESPN Books, 2009. Print.