November 1st is the starting date for National Novel Writing Month. For the younger crowd, under the age of 17, there is the Young Writers Program where they can set their own novel writing goals. For the young writers, the story,” How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, can provide insight into character development. This picture book by Dr. Seuss along with the animated production, effectively illustrates the qualities and main characteristics that all believable characters should have in any type of fictional story.
Key Elements of Believable Characters
What are the key elements of believable characters? Characters must have both good and bad qualities. They must have a transformation or change or learn something throughout the story. The most memorable characters also have a signature trait. For example, consider Harry Potter. What is his signature trait? The scar on his forehead, of course, is the trait that defines Harry Potter. It is an integral part of the story. It is a detail that is connected to his identity, his past and his future. The scar also connects him to the antagonist or the bad guy. Let’s explore this further with the Grinch.
What is the one thing that sets the Grinch apart from all of the other Who’s in Whoville. The Grinch has a heart that is two sizes too small. This small heart explains his nasty disposition. It is also what simply but effectively illustrates the change in the Grinch near the end of the story. Like Harry Potter’s scar it is a significant part of the story. Only the Grinch has a small heart. When the Grinch undergoes his transformation, his heart grows.
Bad Guy Qualities
The Grinch is a mean one. The story states his bad characteristics with a mix actions and statements. We know he is a mean one, because he has a sour Grinchy frown, he hates the Whos, he growls at good things- Christmas activities and chuckles about a plan to stop Christmas. This sets up the Grinch as a bad guy but what makes him and his transformation believable?
Likes and Dislikes
In the next section of the story, the readers/viewers start to notice some of the Grinch’s flaws, likes and dislikes. The Grinch is a nervous sort, he can’t stand noise and though it says he can’t stand the feast we understand that the reason is probably because he isn’t a part of the celebration. While the Grinch is creating his plan to get rid of Christmas we get further insights into his true character. He starts to rationalize his behavior and make excuses. “Why for fifty-three years I’ve put up with it now! I must stop Christmas from coming!”
Good Qualities in a Bad Guy Character
Next in the transformation of the Grinch in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is the subtle introduction of hints of good traits. Notice these are subtle and not outright statements. They are things that might not even make you consciously think he has good traits. For example, in this section he gets an idea. Now true it is an awful idea but he gets an idea. The explanation of the idea shows how he finds solutions to possible problems. He thinks things though. The idea is original and creative. Those things are generally good characteristics. Another subtle suggestion that he has redeeming qualities is that he has a dog. Though he mistreats his dog, he also must take care of the dog. Even during the carrying out of his plan, we are shown how he is quick witted and clever (fixing the tree) and in the face of adversity (getting stuck) he chooses a positive type of rationalization to keep going.
At this point, we have been introduced to a character that has flaws, likes and dislikes, good qualities, needs to change and through his actions and desperate and elaborate plan, we come to believe that he wants a change. However, the Grinch doesn’t expect the change to be in him. We, as the readers/viewers are ready for the change that has been set up. When the transformation occurs, it gives us a good feeling about the story and the story naturally comes to an end. The final moment of transformation is signaled by the Grinch’s signature trait changing-the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day!
Character Development Key Points to Remember
• Bad characters need subtle good traits
• Good characters need subtle bad traits
• Main characters need signature traits
• All key characters must grow, change or transform or learn from their journey through the story
• Signature traits must fit into the story and have a connection to the plot
• Round out your character with likes and dislikes
• Introduce traits in the order of transformation: signature and/or bad traits, likes and dislikes, desire or need to change, good or bad traits (opposite of the characters projected traits), and the transformation
NaNoWriMo’s Young Writer’s Program, National Novel Writing Month
Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Xmas Fun