Students often struggle with differentiating between character description and character development. Description is the easy one. It includes the physical appearance of a character (e.g., color of hair, age, body shape and size, etc.).
Character development requires more inferring. It encompasses what happens within the character and throughout the text. As the characters interact with other characters and face conflict, personality types become evident. If a character is angry or friendly or shy, the text shows evidence to establish those characteristics. Dialogue can show emotion and intent; therefore, collecting quotes from a character can provide insight into what makes that person tick.
But main characters aren’t static. Throughout the story they make choices and decisions that often change them in a significant way. Noticing the textual evidence that documents this metamorphosis leads students to a deeper understanding.
To help her 7th graders distinguish between description and development, West Vigo Middle School (Terre Haute, IN) teacher Melanie Beaver emphasized that one describes who the character is on the inside (development) and the other describes who he is on the outside (description). She achieved this with recycled coffee creamer containers; their shape and size resembles that of a miniature person.
Her assignment included both character description and character development in one product. Each student decorated the outside of a container to look like a character from a book they were independently reading. Using fabric scraps, yarn, pipe-cleaners, buttons, etc., students created a replica of the character’s physical appearance based on the author’s character description within the book.
Then, the students cited quotes and excerpts from the text to show what their characters were like on the inside. They had to document how the character developed throughout the text. Based on their inferences, students had to include text proof on four index cards. The cards were then placed inside the decorated creamer containers to reinforce that character development is about the inner workings of a character.
To incorporate this idea into your classroom, download the student handout (Word version), which includes both sets of directions and a place for students to sketch out their physical character descriptions.
CONTENT-AREA APPLICATION: Consider using this idea in any biography unit or when analyzing important people in history. Students could research historical figures, famous inventors, world explorers, etc. Based on information read in content-area textbooks and/or additional research, students could complete the inner (character development) and outer (character description) components of a Creamer Character.
Amy Bannister had her fifth graders at West Clay Elementary (Carmel, IN) create Creamer Characters for the different biographies they read. She tweaked the original assignment sheet to fit this unique topic. Download the Famous Person version.
Fifth grade teacher Jodie Pulciani from Madison Elementary (Lombard, IL) used Creamer Characters for her biography unit, too. She had her students complete Character Webs (student sample) before decorating their creamer containers.