A couple of weeks ago, I relieved a very grateful substitute teacher in my son's 7th-grade Language Arts class by giving a brief workshop on creating a compelling description of a villain in their writing. I started by reading the first 2 pages of Neil Gaiman's brilliant Newbery-winning THE GRAVEYARD BOOK. They were hooked!
Of course they would have been happy to listen to the book for the next hour, but being the evil English teacher I am, I made them write. As usual, a few kids attacked it with gusto, while some looked around the room and hoped someone would give them the "right" answer, and a couple just put up their while and tried to shut off their brains. But something about that knife pulling us into Bod's world kept calling to all of them and they couldn't follow until they offered a little blood sacrifice of their own.
Their altar: a sheet of paper scrawled with some boxes, grid lines, and a few words. Yes, they actually had to do something other than watch the abandoned lessons on the wipe board fade into oblivion.
My goal for this little exercise was to get the kids thinking about a character in some way other then what's his name, does he have black hair and nasty teeth, what is he doing? We need to feel his presence. And how do we do that? With all of our senses.
First, I pointed out that our first glimpse of the man Jack is not the man at all, but his knife as it skulks through the house snatching lives. That knife tells us much about the villain. It distances him at the same time it draws us closer to him, to the action. How cool is that?!
So when it came to thinking about a dark character, I asked the kids to NOT think about a character, but first to think of 3 things that scare them, really scare them. I called those The Seed. Of course you had the obligatory "Zombies!" "Girls!" "My mom's cooking!" responses, but many of them chimed in with honest answers that you could see on their faces as they wrote "spiders," "darkness," "being alone," or "lightening" down on their papers.
Next we kicked up a little Dust and wrote down 3 words that are creepy. "Looming" popped up on one list. Throw in a little "bloody," "creaking," "stalking"... you get the idea. Most of the kids did too.
Next we filled up our senses and actually started to think in terms of a person. But not quite so straight-forward as that: If your villain were a smell, what would he be? What kind of weather would he be? What would he taste like? What texture would he be? What sound would he be? Don't use the word "like" — just let him BE those things. One fabulous kid says, "I know what this is...we're making metaphors, right?" Pat that boy on the head!
Okay boys and girls, now we are almost ready to meet the dastardly dude. Let's get more literal. Think about those little details: Describe your villain's walk; his handshake; his voice; his mouth; his nose; one other attribute of your choice.
And we have arrived. Let's meet your villain. (Cue the "you're going to write a theme" moan—although I am thrilled to say not many kids moaned.) In fact a few were bummed out that the period was almost over. So while they stewed on the prewriting they did, I read a few more pages of the book. Holy Creepy Zombies, bat folks! All that crazy stuff we just did actually makes sense! Yep, they could trace their prewriting steps right through the murder of three people before the bell rang. What fun!!
I don't think I embarrassed Ghost Son too badly, and believe it or not, the substitute teacher joined in the fun and did the whole thing with us. My main goal was to push them beyond the flat cliché and into something more complex, something more tangible.
Now I'm sure they all ran home and wrote that opening paragraph that introduces their villain...right?