When my students create characters for their NaNoWriMo novels, I push them to get super detailed: to hear the songs their characters will listen to when they plug in their earbuds; to picture the snack food they’ll pull from their backpack as they walk home from school; to feel the clothes they’ll grab from their closet on a Saturday morning. But those details don’t get to the heart of a character, to the backstory and soul that really drive a person.
So this year I added some layers to our character development lessons. I found this great article by Roxanna Elden on the three layers of a complex character:
- the outer, protective layer, which is usually “socially acceptable but superficial”
- the middle, defective layer, which we try to hide with our outer layer
- underneath it all is our inner, human core, the part of us that helps explain our other two layers. This core is also the part of us that is most universal. Elden says, “If we can see the human core of a character, we will understand and care for them. If a character can find and learn to accept their own human core, they will achieve inner peace to the degree it’s possible.”
Middle school students (and many adults) are not usually fully aware of their own layers, but after just a brief lesson on the topic, along with examples of characters we know well, my students started crafting some deep, layered characters for their novels.
We started, of course, by watching the “ogres are like onions” scene from Shrek (click image to view):
This was meant to be just a fun introduction, but as we watched I realized that Donkey really helped to drive the point home. When he suggested cake or parfait instead of onions, he clarified another reason that an onion is the best metaphor. I put these images on the screen and asked my students what they noticed:
It took them a little while to see what I saw (I’m learning to let it be quiet longer than is comfortable so they can THINK), but eventually someone got it:
“Oh! I know! The onion has a center, but the cake and parfaits don’t. They are stacked layers, not layers that wrap around and hide inner layers.”
And – BAM – that sweet little insight really nailed the concept for many of us. We looked at the character of Snape, from the Harry Potter series, and how in the beginning he seemed to be an angry man who unfairly picked on Harry. But throughout the series he becomes one of the most complex, layered characters of all:
My students spent the rest of class detailing the three layers of their protagonist. At the end of class we shared our characters’ layers in a quick whip around the room, and the depth was staggering. I can’t wait to read the stories of these layered characters!
Bonus: I could see a chipping away of the façade that teens often wear as they heard their classmates speak of the deep, human core at the heart of their characters. This fresh understanding of human layers just might help my students develop empathy both for each other and for characters in the books they read (and write).