And why playing and storytelling go hand in hand
If you think of what a story is made of, you know it needs a solid character, at least one (you can go back to my post on this topic).
Creating a character from scratch can be such an exciting adventure for some children – they can enjoy giving the character a name, a pet, superpowers, you name it. But once they have finished trying on different clothes on their character, they have found the ones that fit, and what happens next?
A character that is well-described will only get you so far. You can create a whole profile for your character, including hair color, age, first and last name and so on. But then you will need to make this character come to life.
When children play with toys, especially animals, dolls, action figures or other possible “characters”, they create a story for them. They don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how old their stuffed animal is or which bear school it went to. These “characters” are doing something. Things are happening to them.
If you watch your children while they play, you can often hear them creating lots of dialogue, making different toys talk to each other, using their imagination to put their beloved toys in difficult situations, then looking for a solution. Children are always creating stories, even though they may not notice.
Your characters need a bit more than a passport with general information, such as when they were born and where, and what they look like. For characters to go on adventures big or small, they need to have wishes or goals (for some children, it may be easier to explain that the character has a wish or really wants to do something, instead of using the word goal, which they may find too abstract to understand).
A wish or goal could be that they want to catch a train and there is an obstacle in the way, for example, another stuffed toy. What they do to sort out this problem and how they interact with other characters or with their environment is what will make the story move forward and show who the characters really are.
In writing, we always hear “show, don’t tell”, and I think this becomes important when talking about characters. Telling the reader that the character has brown hair or is very tall will not get the character to become a part of the story unless he’s tall enough to reach something he really needs or he is able to make his hair change color by blinking three times, for example. Details about characters are only helpful if they help us understand who they really are and what they want in the story. If we want to say that our character is brave, or mean, or silly, we have to show it to the reader with a series of actions or events that show the character’s true self. This will really move the story forward.
Some questions you can think of answering when building a character are, on a first level:
What is their name?
What are the things you can see about them? These are the most visible or obvious things, such as appearance, age, a job title, or their place in the family (brother, mother, grandparent, etc.).
Then we move on to the things that not everyone in the story knows just by looking at your character but by watching what your character does:
What are they good at? What should they be better at?
What are they like? Friendly? Talented? Competitive?
What are their favorite things? Chocolate cake? Playing tennis?
What do they want in this story? To have lunch with a friend? To pass a test? More chocolate cake?
Young children can even start off by using one of their actual toys as the main character in a story. Their favorite toy (which they know so well already) goes on adventures with them or other characters.
Character building can be a good exercise in itself to help flex the creative muscle, even if no full story comes out of it. But it’s very likely that if your children just spent some time giving life to these characters, they will want to make them part of a story.