• Teaching Tips

Putting Yourself in Your Character’s Shoes (Sneakers, Ballet Flats or Boots!)

by Jennifer Roy and Julia Devillers
December 20, 2012
Just because people experience the same situation, it doesn’t mean they have the same responses to it. We know this very well. We’re identical twins (Jennifer’s six minutes older! Julia is an inch taller!) Other than the six minutes Jen was on earth before Julia, we shared the same room, school and life throughout childhood.

But through very different points of view.

Even though we look alike, if we were main characters in a book, our stories would have different voices, flavors and feel. Think about the old adage of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes: We wear different kinds of shoes both literally and figuratively: Julia is likely to be in wedge heels; Jennifer in cute ballet flats. We’re sitting in a mall right now, and we asked ourselves what we’re noticing this very moment.

Julia is noticing the woman with the cute baby and cute tangerine dress and the people at the next table cracking up. Jennifer is noticing the scent from the pretzel place, the cute baby (but not the woman’s dress) and the song that reminds her of tenth grade.

Every person has his or her own unique point of view in a given situation, even if you’re sitting next to each other (and are close as sisters).

When you write fiction, it can be a challenge to write from a character’s particular point of view. This is particularly true of kids, who tend to automatically write from their own point of view. (Adult writers aren’t immune; you’ve probably read books where the teen characters sound—golly gee—like a grownup.) It’s important to help young writers become aware that if you can capture a character’s point of view, you help your reader connect to the character and understand his or her personality, motivations and emotions.

We write a book series about identical twin seventh-graders who—just like the authors—look like but see things from very different points of view. The books shift perspective between social Payton (trendy wedges) and mathlete Emma (well-worn sneakers and cute but comfy ballet flats.)

One way we show the difference between our characters is to use sensory details. You want your students to walk through the story in their character’s shoes. But, what kind of shoes? Well-worn sneakers? Roller skates? Sky-high heels? Or do they even wear shoes? (They may have hooves or paws or gangrenous zombie stumps.)

Student writers often focus on action and dialogue. While those are obviously crucial to a story, they often leave out an important component: sensory details. What is the character seeing, feeling, smelling, hearing and yes, even tasting? Fiction is descriptive and sensory details add a richness and maturity to students’ writing. (Even the ones about the zombies.) Learning to add sensory details will help writers bring the story to life from their narrator’s unique viewpoint. In TRADING FACES, sometimes we follow Payton and Emma as they experience the exact same situation. However, while the situation is the same, notice the differences in their characters:

The twins walk into a classroom:

Payton sees:
  • The empty seat in the back where she can hide from teacher questions
  • The people who are watching her walk in, self-consciously
  • The trendy coral shoes of the girl in the front row
Emma sees:
  • The empty seat in the front where she can best capture the teacher’s attention
  • The assignment written on the smartboard
  • Her academic arch nemesis already taking notes
Payton hears:
  • The whispers of people gossiping
Emma hears:
  • The voice in her own head prepping for class
Payton touches:
  • The gooey lip gloss as she reaches into her backpack for her pencil
Emma touches:
  • The sharp compass point as she reaches into her backpack for a pencil
You can see how sensory details add to our understanding of our characters who, on the surface, seem exactly the same.

Now, things can get pretty creative if the main character is a supernatural being or a historical character. A zombie might walk into a school and see people as food and smell brains (and depending on the graphic writing proclivities of the student, taste them.) The vampire sees necks and smells blood. The historical character might see baffling lights from electricity and computers and the strange wardrobe of students.

Here’s a writing exercise to demonstrate the value of sensory details by introducing and identifying sensory details from their own point of view.

Tell students to imagine they’re going to the mall. Ask them to write down the first place they would go to. They might identify a clothing store, video game outlet, food court, or bath and body shop.

Next have them write down five sensory details they would experience in this setting. Students might write about the vivid colors of the clothes, the noisy beeping of the games, the citrusy, perfumey bath gels, or the rich scents of the food court with all of its different potential tastes.

Have students share their responses with the class. Point out the difference and similarities between their choices of sensory details they “experienced.” This shows how different people have their individual points of view.

Some students will also note they focused on different senses from their classmates. Some people are more naturally visual, others auditory, and others kinesthetic. We see this in our characters Payton and Emma:

“We need signature colors,” Payton said. “Mine is hot pink. What’s yours?”

I knew Payton wouldn’t drop the subject until I chose a stupid color. “Gray,” I told her.

“You can’t have gray!” she squealed. “It’s so blah! So nothing!”

“It’s the shade of my mechanical pencil,” I said, holding up the pencil I was writing with.

“Just pick something else,” she sighed.

“Fine,” I said. “Blue.”

“Baby blue? Greenish-blue? Aquamarine?” she asked. “Turquoise?”

Payton is very visual, which is a common sensory focus. Help students explore all the forms of sensory details with another writing exercise.

Here’s a second exercise you can try:

Student writers need to be able to step out of themselves and put themselves into other characters not only writing, but for literary analysis. So the next step is to have students identify the sensory details that fit their characters.

Have students fold a piece of paper in half, then in half again. Unfold it so there are four blank boxes. Have them label one area: SEE, the next HEAR, then SMELLS LIKE and FEELS LIKE. Explain that these are four of the five senses, and taste is less commonly used in this instance.

Ask students to close their eyes and imagine they have ‘become’ their main character. Now, they should open their eyes and look around. Then ask them to stay ‘in character’ and write down what they see in the classroom. Then what they hear, smell, touch.

After students have had the opportunity to explore their surroundings on paper, invite them to share their characters’ impressions of your classroom. Compare and contrast the different answers.

If we walked into your classroom or library for an author visit, you and your students would see two people who look very much alike and share the same profession. But, you’d soon learn we have different personalities…and styles of shoes.

However, one thing we absolutely have in common is our enthusiasm for students to enjoy writing and to learn to express themselves. And that is a shared point of view that we both share with you.

Julia DeVillers is the identical twin sister of Jennifer Roy. Her book HOW MY PRIVATE, PERSONAL JOURNAL BECAME A BESTSELLER was adapted as a Disney Channel Original Movie, and she is the author of the Liberty Porter, First Daughter series.

Jennifer Roy is the identical twin sister of Julia DeVillers. Her book YELLOW STAR was named an ALA Notable Book and School Library Journal Best Book.

Together, they write the Trading Faces series about (what else?) identical twins. The most recent installment, DOUBLE FEATURE, comes out in paperback on December 18th; TRIPLE TROUBLE will be released in hardcover on January 1st.

© 2012 Jennifer Roy and Julia DeVillers. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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