Tag Archives: exams

Creating off-the-shelf characters

Common entrance exams have a time limit. If they didn’t, they’d be a lot easier! If you want to save time and improve your story, one thing you can do is to prepare three ‘off-the-shelf’ characters that you can choose from. You can work on them beforehand, improving them and memorising them as you go. By the time the exam comes around, it’ll be easy to dash off 8-10 lines about one of your favourite characters without having to spend any time inventing or perfecting them.

Here’s what you need to do.

The first thing to say is that you need your characters to be a little out of the ordinary. Most pupils writing stories tend to write about themselves. In other words, 10-year-old boys living in London tend to write stories about 10-year-old boys living in London! Now, that’s all very well, and the story might still get a good mark, but what you want to try and do is stand out from the crowd. Why not write a story about an 18-year-old intern at a shark research institute in the Maldives?! To decide which one you’d rather write about, you just have to ask yourself which one you’d rather read about. One thing you can do to make sure your characters are special is to give them all what I call a ‘speciality’ or USP (Unique Selling Proposition). It might be a superpower such as X-ray vision or mind-reading, or it might be a special skill such as diving or surfing, or it might be a fascinating back-story such as being descended from the Russian royal family or William Shakespeare – whatever it is, it’s a great way to make your characters – and therefore your stories – just that little bit more interesting.

Secondly, ou should also make sure all your characters are different. Try to cover all the bases so that you have one you can use for just about any story. That means having heroes that are male and female, old and young with different looks, personalities and nationalities. For instance, Clara might be the 18-year-old intern at a shark research institute in the Maldives, Pedro might be the 35-year-old Mexican spy during the Texas Revolution of 1835-6 and Kurt might be the 60-year-old Swiss inventor who lives in a laboratory buried deep under the Matterhorn! Who knows? It’s entirely up to you.

Thirdly, creating an off-the-shelf character is a great way to force yourself to use ‘wow words’ and literary techniques such as metaphors and similes. You may have learned what a simile is, but it’s very easy to forget to use them in your stories, so why not describe one of your heroes as having ‘eyes as dark as a murderer’s soul’? If you use the same characters with similar descriptions over and over again, it’ll become second nature to ‘show off’ your knowledge, and you can do the same with your vocabulary. Again, why say that someone is ‘big’ when you can say he is ‘athletic’, ‘brawny’ or ‘muscular’?

Fourthly, try to stick to what you know. If you’ve never even ridden on a horse, it’s going to be quite tough to write a story about a jockey! Alternatively, if you’ve regularly been to a particular place on holiday or met someone you found especially interesting, then use what you know to create your characters and their backgrounds. It’s always easier to describe places if you’ve actually been there, and it’s easier to describe people if you know someone similar.

So what goes into creating off-the-shelf characters? The answer is that you have to try and paint a complete picture. It has to cover every major aspect of their lives – even if you can’t remember all the details when you come to write the story. I’d start by using the following categories:

  • Name
  • Age
  • Job or education
  • Looks
  • Home
  • Friends and family
  • Personality
  • USP (or speciality)

Names are sometimes hard to decide on, so you might want to leave this one to last, but you just need to make sure it’s appropriate to the sort of character you’re creating. It wouldn’t be very convincing to have a Japanese scientist called Emily!

Age is fairly easy to decide. Just make sure your three characters are different – and not too close to your own age!

Job or education goes a long way to pigeon-holing someone. You can tell a lot from what someone does for a living or what they are doing in school or at university. You can include as much or as little detail as you like, but the minimum is probably the name and location of the school or college and what your characters’ favourite subjects are. You never know when it might come in handy!

Looks includes hair, eye colour, build, skin colour and favourite clothes. The more you describe your heroes’ looks, the easier it’ll be for the reader to imagine them.

Home can again be as detailed as you like, but the more specific the better. It’s easier to imagine the captain of a nuclear submarine patrolling under the North Pole than someone simply ‘living in London’…

Friends and family are important to most people, and it’s no different for the heroes of your stories. We don’t need to know the names of all their aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents, but we at least need to know who they live with and who their best friends are.

Personality covers many things, but it should show what your characters are ‘like’ and what their interests are. Again, you don’t have to go into enormous depth, but it’s good to introduce the reader to qualities that might be needed later on in the story, such as athleticism or an ability to sail a boat.

USP (or speciality) covers anything that makes a character worth reading about. One of the reasons Superman is so popular is his super powers: his ability to fly, his X-ray vision and the fact that he’s invulnerable. His greatest weakness is also important: Kryptonite. It’s the same for your characters. What can they do that most people can’t? What qualities can they show off in your stories? What will make them people we admire, respect and even love?

Once you’ve created the notes for your three characters, you can write a paragraph of 8-10 lines about each of them. This is your chance to create something that you can easily slot into any of your stories, so use the past tense and stick to what the characters are like, not what they’re doing. That will be different in each story, so you don’t want to tie yourself down.

Try using your characters for stories you’re asked to write by your English teacher (or tutor, if you have one). The more often you use them, the better they’ll get as you change things you don’t like about them, bring in new ideas and polish the wording.

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Describing feelings

In many 11+ and 13+ exams, you have to talk about feelings. Yes, I know that’s hard for most boys that age, but I thought it might help if I wrote down a list of adjectives that describe our emotions. Here we go…

A bloke called Bob (actually Robert Plutchik) thought that people only ever felt eight different emotions:

His list is shown in this ‘wheel of emotions’. The basic eight feelings are:

  • Ecstasy
  • Admiration
  • Terror
  • Amazement
  • Grief
  • Loathing
  • Rage
  • Vigilance

If we had a think about all the adjectives that are associated with these categories (and sub-categories), we might come up with a list like this one:

  • Ecstasy
    crazy
    delirious
    ecstatic
    elated
    enthusiastic
    euphoric
    fervent
    glad
    happy
    joyful
    joyous
    mad
    overjoyed
    rapturous
    rhapsodic
    serene
    thrilled
    upbeat
  • Admiration
    accepting
    admiring
    adoring
    appreciative
    loving
    respectful
    trustful
    trusting
  • Terror
    afraid
    aghast
    alarmed
    apprehensive
    awed
    frightened
    frozen
    scared
    submissive
    terrified
  • Amazement
    amazed
    astonished
    astounded
    awe-struck
    bewildered
    dazed
    distracted
    dumbfounded
    flabbergasted
    impressed
    perplexed
    shocked
    staggered
    startled
    stunned
    surprised
    unprepared
  • Grief
    bitter
    grief-stricken
    grieving
    heart-broken
    melancholy
    mournful
    pensive
    pessimistic
    sad
    somber
    sorrowful
    sorry
    unhappy
    wistful
  • Loathing
    appalled
    bored
    disapproving
    disgusted
    outraged
    queasy
    tired
    weary
  • Rage
    angry
    aggressive
    annoyed
    contemptuous
    enraged
    exasperated
    furious
    heated
    impassioned
    indignant
    irate
    irritable
    irritated
    offended
    resentful
    sullen
    uptight
  • Vigilance
    anxious
    aware
    cautious
    circumspect
    expectant
    interested
    keen
    observant
    optimistic
    vigilant
    wary

You must be crazy!

2+2=5

Why? What’s wrong with that…?

Teachers and tutors ask pupils to check their work, but how can you do that in Maths without doing the whole sum all over again? Well, you can’t! So how are you supposed to check your work?

What you have to understand first of all is that checking everything is right is very different from checking nothing is obviously wrong. To check everything is right means doing the whole paper twice, but you obviously don’t have time to do that. Checking nothing is obviously wrong is much easier because it just means doing a ‘quick and dirty’ calculation in your head. It doesn’t guarantee that the answer is right, but it’s a good compromise. I call it ‘sanity checking’, which means making sure your answers are not crazy! Unfortunately, there isn’t one method that works for every question – it depends on what type of question it is – but here are a few examples:

Algebra

If you have to ‘solve for 𝑥’ and it’s a difficult question, try putting your answer back into the original equation and seeing if one side equals the other, eg if you think 𝑥 = 5, then that works for 2𝑥 + 6 = 16, but not for 3𝑥 + 2 = 5. That would be crazy!

Multiplication

Every multiplication sum starts with multiplying the last digit of each number together, so try doing that when you’ve got your answer and checking if the last digit of the result is equal to the last digit of the answer, eg 176 x 467 is going to end in a 2 because 6 x 7 = 42, which also ends with a 2. Your answer couldn’t end in any other number. That would be crazy!

Rounding

If you have any kind of sum that involves adding, subtracting, multiplication or division, an easy way to check it is to round the numbers to one or two significant figures (eg to the nearest hundred) and work out the answer in your head. If it’s close enough, then your answer is not obviously wrong. If it’s nowhere near, then you’ll have to do it again, eg 1.7 x 3.4 is close to 2 x 3, so the answer might be 5.78, but it wouldn’t be 57.8. That would be crazy!

Units

Most answers in Maths tests need some kind of unit, such as kg, m, cm or ml. Sometimes, the units are provided, but sometimes they’re not. If they’re not, you just need to make sure that you use the right ones, eg if the scale of a map is 1:100,000, the distance represented by 9.8cm is 9.8km, not 9.8m. That would be crazy!