Getting into Character
Planes, trains, automobiles, and more – this month’s look at transportation books might seem a bit impersonal, characterless, emotionless. When I looked closer, though, I found all kinds of characters. Let’s spend a few minutes examining how authors infuse character in these books about more technical topics.
Biography is an obvious approach, one taken in Elon Musk: And the Quest for a Fantastic Future. Following one individual’s life, author Ashley Vance shows us the development of his passion, the technical challenges he conquered, as well as the human challenges he dealt with. The results are an in-depth look at the skills needed to develop advanced transportation systems such as spaceships and electric cars.
When tackling a topic such as the Titanic, which incorporate so much human tragedy, utilizing character is a natural fit. In Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, author Deborah Hopkinson interweaves individual’s stories to convey the magnitude of this event.
But even in a book with a much more technical focus, such as Who Built That? Bridges by Didier Cornille, space is given to including character. A single paragraph at the beginning of each chapter presents a brief expository bio before the chapter dives into the history and a step-by-step look at how each specific bridge was constructed.
Use of character isn’t limited to actual human characters. Take a look at Save the Crash-test Dummies by Jennifer Swanson and you’ll see how inanimate dummy characters play a role in conveying the mechanical and historical content.
Why did each of these authors use character? I’m thinking deeper than the obvious answer: to draw the reader in. I’m comparing and contrasting how they presented these characters. The placement in the sequence of the text, the words used to describe the characters, the impact of character development, or lack of it. In analyzing this, I’m considering how I’ll use character in future writing to present topics that appeal to a wide variety of readers.
Try It Yourself:
- Compare the first two pages of the first chapter of two books. Titanic and Elon Musk work well. Highlight every word or passage that characterizes the humans. Which techniques do these authors use? How similar or different are they? Consider why.
- Now focus on a single book, Save the Crash-test Dummies, is ideal for this exercise. Scan the book for places where the nonhuman characters are characterized. Where is that in the sequence of the book? Can you find examples of characterization in places other than the main text?
- Think about characterization in expository versus narrative text. Look for examples of each in this collection of books. Find an example of expository characterization (as in Who Built That? Bridges) and rewrite that is narrative. Yes you probably have to make it up; that’s okay for an exercise. Find an example of narrative characterization and rewrite that as expository. Which was harder? Why? How would making that change to the text impact the larger piece of writing?
Heather L. Montgomery writes books for kids are wild about animals; she’s learned to bring characterization into her works. Her recent Something Rotten: A Fresh Look at Roadkill follows an inquisitive narrator who visits scientists who use roadkill bodies to make discoveries. Her Little Monsters of the Ocean: Metamorphosis under the Waves characterizes juvenile marine creatures to tell the story of how they each grow up.
THE O.O.L.F. FILES
Podcasts are great forgetting your regular dose of science. Here are some great ones for kids and adults:
- Science Friday: In-depth looks at current science research. These stories dive deep into questions that are at the forefront of our minds. Their website has episodes sorted by topic (health, math, energy) as well as further reading and resources for each episode.
- Brains On! Science Podcasts for Kids: From American Public Media, this podcast is perfect for kids and curious adults. Each week it focuses on a different fascinating question such as: How do elevators work? What is dyslexia? How do ants and spiders walk on walls?
- WOW in the World: in this high-energy podcasts produced by NPR, the hosts take you on an imaginative trip, a journey into the wonders of the world. Inside brains, deep into the ocean, or far out in space. Perfect for the whole family.
- Tumble Science Podcast for Kids: Hosted by a science reporter and an educator who are also parents, this podcast asks questions, shares mysteries, and interviews real scientists. Episodes include: The Secret Senses of Plants, Earth Rangers, and What Would Happen if There Was No Moon?