Lesson One- Introduction and Characters

Introduction and Meeting Your Characters


Concepts to be attained: 1) What is Science Fiction? 2) How do we create complete characters without spending too much time on them?

Concepts that are important to expansion: Definitions of protagonist and antagonist, what makes a character well rounded and complete versus a paper cutout that won’t carry a story?

Materials needed:

  • For explorations – Short story: We Have Always Lived on Mars by Cecil Castellucci, which can be found here.
  • For expansions – paper and pen or computer, Chuck Wendig’s guide to creating characters (adapted appropriately for your audience), index cards,
  1. Engagement

What is the focus of the lesson?

The goal of this lesson is to come up with a basic outline of two characters. For the purposes of the program, students will be directed to create a human astronaut, and an alien from the planet that they will create over the course of the program. Which, if either, is the protagonist and antagonist will be left up to the student. In addition, prior to delving into characters, there will be a brief discussion of what Science Fiction is, why we study it, and the end result of the program: a complete, original short story.

2.  Exploration

What will students do?

As an icebreaker and introduction, students will have a brief discussion on how they would define science fiction. They will list as many things that they think might be found in Sci Fi, which will be written on index cards. Ex: aliens, faster than light technology, bioweapons, etc. After the discussion, which will include the expansiveness of Sci Fi, and why it’s important to study it, students will be dealt two or three of the index cards, and asked to write a two or three sentence “story” which includes both things on the cards.  These Six Word Stories can be used as examples.

As a group, Students will read We Have Always Lived on Mars. A brief discussion will follow: What have we learned about the characters? HOW have we learned it? How does the author work in a bunch of information to create a well rounded character, without it becoming an information dump?

 3.  Explanation

What is the main idea (concept) ?

Well rounded characters are an absolutely necessary part of any story. A two dimensional character isn’t interesting for the reader, and will not be able to carry a story on their own.

In addition, it is important to know your characters inside and out, so that telling details can be conveyed to the reader at opportune times. Unless the writer knows a character completely, the reader never will, and weak characters have a hard time moving a story along.

Finally, the character must have problems, and they must have solutions that probably won’t work the first time. If the reader knows this but the character doesn’t, that’s even better. The obstacles a character faces, and the things they fear are what drives a story forward.

 4.  Expansion

How will the idea be expanded?

Students will be guided through the exercises found in Chuck Wendig’s “Zero-Fuckery Guide to Creating Characters (minus the inappropriate for children language). Once they have done this for each of their characters, they will be instructed to write the beginning scene of their story based on the following “door” prompt.

Your astronaut has crash landed on a planet. S/He is about to open the door to the spaceship. S/He has an object in their hand. Write the scene.

If time permits, as a final exercise students will be led step-by-step through Reiko Rizzuto’s word association exercise to begin exploring their characters’ secrets and fears. They can keep these in mind for the next session, when they start determining conflicts for their characters. If there is not time, this exercise will be saved for use in the conflict lesson.

Word Association Exercise Instructions:

On a blank piece of paper, write down all the words you can think of to describe your character (do one character at a time). Don’t overthink, just write down words.

Once you have a sizeable word cloud (make sure to leave plenty of space around your words), find four different colored pens, pencils, crayons, whatever. It is possible to do this without different colors, but they will be easier to distinguish with them.

  1. With your first color, put a box around things that can change for your character.
  2. With the second color, circle words that could be/are secrets.
  3. With the third color, put a triangle around words that are your character’s strengths (even if maybe they haven’t realized that yet.)
  4. With the final color, make a squiggly line around your character’s fears/or the secrets they keep from themselves.

Some of the lines will (and should!) overlap. The secrets and fears will not stay secret for long. This is where your plot comes from. In addition, strengths can be used as weaknesses, if the character isn’t aware that they have them.

Save these word clouds. They will come in handy during the lesson on plot. Remember: characters who have problems beget stories that have plot.

5.  Evaluation

How will the students show what they have learned?

By the end of the class the students will have a good start on two characters that they can then build on over the course of the remaining sessions. They will also have begun a story with these characters that will evolve as more components of the story are introduced throughout the workshop.


*Special thanks to Chuck Wendig and Rahna Reiko Rizzuto for having awesome writing exercises that I have definitely lifted/adapted for this lesson.