Teach your students how to make a character go from blah to Wow! with strong character arc examples showing their changes during key story moments.

 

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Dive into character arc with me in this essay about teaching narrative writing. When characters glow and grow, readers can identify with them. All teachers love to see the growth in their own students, especially light bulb moments. Here are some mentor text examples that give those light bulb moments all teachers love to see.

Bobble people in a line with the title in the foreground.

 

 

 

Examples of Narrative Writing for Teaching Character Arc

I checked out a few books from the library that I think have good examples of character arc. The first that comes to mind is any of Roald Dahl’s books. His writing shows strong character arcs. Let’s think about some of the characters in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Violet starts out spoiled and misbehaves in the most annoying ways. Roald Dahl does a fantastic job of creating characters we love to hate. Violet’s character complains and acts more spoiled in each scene. By the time she turns into a giant blueberry and is taken to the pressing room, readers are happy to see her go. Her change was turning into a blueberry as a result of her choices.

Charlie begins as a poor boy that gains the reader’s sympathy. By the end of the story, he’s gained confidence and is triumphant. He’ll never have anyone feeling sorry for him again. This is an example of glowing and growing.

Of course, Harry Potter has the same type of story arc. From abandoned and orphaned and living in a closet under the stairs, he changes into a powerful young wizard. 

Using Picture Books to Teach Character Arc

Using picture books to teach character arc on a pink background with white book pages.
Here’s a way to keep these ideas at your fingertips. Save this post to your Pinterest board.

Don’t be afraid to use picture books to teach elements of fiction, even if you’re teaching upper elementary students. This can be especially effective if you use some of their favorite books they enjoyed when they were younger. When they examine the picture book as a writer, and they learn the author’s techniques, they can dive deep into the learning. They’ll see that what they’re learning is something their favorite authors do, and it will make them want to do it too. This is also used in mentor text routines I described in another blog post.

Other books with strong character arc examples are those by Chris van Allsburg, Tomie de Paola, and Patricia Polacco. Bonus: these are books your students probably know and love.

In the Strega Nona books by Tomie de Paola, the character Big Anthony is always a bit of a lovable, bumbling helper. He doesn’t grow out of that persona, but he does grow into a way of solving the problems he creates in each story. This is also a type of character growth.

Through reading these books, students learn that character arc often involves learning from mistakes. Whether Big Anthony is losing control of a magic pasta pot, or growing a jungle of vegetables, he is the one who solves his own problems. That’s the character growth.

No one else can solve the main character’s problem but the characters themselves. If someone else solves the problem, the character can’t grow. What if Dumbledore had been the one to solve all of Harry’s problems in the Harry Potter books? Then Harry would never have grown into a powerful wizard. Plus we all would have stopped reading after the first book.

Using the Roller Coaster to Show Character Arc

Just like we used the roller coaster graphic to teach story arc in last week’s blog post, you can do the same thing for your character arc.

Students should write a description of their character before they start the roller coaster ride of rising action, ultimate problem, moment of no return, and finally the resolution. The moment of no return and the resolution are the two strongest parts of the story arc in which to show character growth. This can only take place if the student has time to do prewriting. Prewriting can include table discussions, sounding out ideas in partners or groups. It could include bullet points of a story. Another possibility is to use a similar story arc to one in a book a student has read.

 

Image of a roller coaster with a character arc comment.
You can download a copy of the story arc presentation slides from the Member Vault.

Give your students a page with an arc on it. Have them describe their character at the beginning. Then have them add some notes at the top of the arc showing how the character reacts to the ultimate problem. What is the character thinking? Describe the feelings they’re having. What are their reactions to the only path forward? 

Take a Ride on the Character Arc Roller Coaster 

Let’s think about this with a character who is afraid to ride a wooden roller coaster. He’s nervous and scared. Maybe his friends have dared him to ride on this rickety old ride.

Gravity pushed his head back against the padded seat as he climbs the first and largest hill. The wind blows harder at altitude, and he worries that the wind might blow his car off the track. He looks down, (NO! Don’t look down!) and his stomach drops into his athletic shoes.

Time slows down as the coaster slows at the top of the hill. It seems as though actual time has slowed down too. The character’s terrified, but there’s no way out but down. Down he goes, eyes closed and screaming. He white-knuckles the safety bar and opens his eyes for a peek as they fly down the other side of the hill. What does he do next? This will give a clue to how his character is changing.

When he reaches the end of the roller coaster, how does he react? If he decides he loved the adrenaline rush and he’s ready to ride more roller coasters, that’s the change in his character. He’s no longer afraid.

But what if he is scared beyond words? What if he decides he’s never going on a roller coaster again and no one is going to talk him into it? That’s also a character change. He’s no longer iffy about roller coasters. He’s strong enough now to say no to something he doesn’t like.

Tools for Teaching Character Arc Like a Pro

We’ve covered story arc and character arc. For elementary students, these are both complex topics. It takes time for them to soak in the concept. This isn’t a one and done lesson. It’s an ability that grows with practice, just like any other skill.

You can hand out the Roller Coaster Story Arc to your students, and have them write out the story arc with the problems first. Then have them draw an arc on the back of one page. They should write the character description and character arc, explaining how the main character changes in the story.

You could have them do this with a few different story ideas before ever writing a narrative. The practice of looking at narrative writing in this way will help them think critically about their own writing. During small group meetings of writing workshop, you can go over these arcs with them. 

You can get your copy of the Roller Coaster Story Arc graphic organizer from the Member Vault.

The next blog post in this narrative writing series, Teach a Gripping Problem and Satisfying Solution, is about how to decide on a story problem and solution.

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I’m looking forward to having you in my group of regular readers as we glow and grow together!

Suzanne-TeacherWriter

 

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