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Writing Activity: Bringing Animal Characters Alive Through Gesture

Taking as inspiration the world of puppeteers for the play "War Horse" this activity teaches students how to use gesture to make animal characters more realistic.

This 23-minute TED Talk is about how the puppet horse in the play War Horse is made to feel alive. Animals are common characters in stories written by kids, horses especially. Different authors of stories about animals bring their characters to life in different ways, but one very common way to make an animal character believable as the animal it is declared to be is to have it display behaviors that are characteristic of that animal. In this video we see that the puppeteers who created the horse for War Horse enabled their huge puppet to display several very typical horse behaviors.

First, all horses (all animals) breathe. So they gave their puppet the ability to look like it was breathing. Horses can breathe very loudly! When writing a story with a horse character, it can be helpful to remember that at some point the horse may breathe out through loose lips, making that distinctive horsey brrrrrrr sound. Second, anyone who has spent time around a horse knows its ears move in multiple directions and the horse may cup its ears towards a sound to listen, even before it moves its head. In fact, a horse may divide its attention between looking and listening. The puppeteers who created the wooden horse made sure it was able to move its ears in a horse-like way.

In writing a story about a horse, the cocking of an ear, the letting out of a loud breath, the flicking of a tail, a pawing gesture of a front leg -- these are the kinds of horse-like behaviors that can imbue a horse character with the sense of reality that strengthens the character in the story, making it more believable. Yes! It really is a stallion!

The ideas for making puppets explained in this video can be applied to any animal -- dogs, cats, parakeets, rabbits, chickens. A writing project based on the video could be as simple as writing a paragraph in which an animal character moves a short distance -- a cat across a room, a horse to the edge of a paddock -- but in the process uses one or two movements that are characteristic of that animal.

The discussion inspired by the video could expand to include a discussion of gesture as a way to delineate human characters. The nervous laugh, the unconscious brushing back of the hair, a voice that goes up (or down) under stress -- these are the gestures that help define each of our personalities. The characters in a story become more believable, more real, when given the occasional dimensionality of real life.

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