Character Development – inspiration from Five Bells

opera house night

The opening chapter of Gail Jones’ Five Bells cleverly introduces characters through their perceptions of the quay and Sydney Opera House. Whilst Ellie describes the icon as a fan (p. 3), the ‘obstinately unjoyful’ James DeMello sees white teeth reminiscent of  prowling sharks (pp. 4-5). The calm and independent Pei Xing likens the building to an old friend, and never tires of the ‘porcelain bowls … in unexpected harmony.’ (p. 12). Catherine, a brash young Irish woman, identifies a resemblance between the sales and petals on ‘blown roses’ (pp. 14-15).


Image of Eric Thake’s An Opera House in Every Home from the National Gallery of Australia:

As a class exercise in Preliminary Extension, we discussed how effective these varied insights are in revealing important aspects of each character. We challenged ourselves to think of alternative views for the opera house and create a word bank. Here are two examples:

1. waves   wild   changeable   white   frothy   crest   ocean   inbalanced   contrast   rhythm   sense of time

2. architecture   tiles   framework   feathers   skeleton   unfolding   bat   bird wings

Further discussion allowed students to consider how these words and ideas might affect meaning for a reader when meeting a character. I noted that, so far, our ideas were mainly positive and we then tried to develop a series of negative words:

piled up bones on promontory   angles   stiffness   jumbled   jutted   imposition   thoughtless   hip   pelvis   scapula   uncaring

We then turned our attention to a local icon – Corbett Gardens in Bowral. This is the central site for the annual Tulip Festival which attracts many tourists to the southern highlands region of New South Wales. Through visualisation, we considered the features of this outdoor space in individual seasons and how we experience these through our different senses. We created a series of word banks for the hard and soft architecture, garden beds and plants. For each item, word or idea, we challenged ourselves to record specifics, increasing our vocabulary and opening up the possibilities for nuance, connotations and lateral ideas.

  • stone garden beds: grey   granite   sandstone   cement   dry   mottled   lichen   moss
  • wire arches: pavillion   gazebo   seating   marble   memorial   benches
  • paths: meander   rounded   winding
  • tulips: deiversity   community   unity   bright   individual   massed planting   hybrids   colours   petals   created   manufactured   harmony   drifts   shape   design
  • tulip colours:
  • yellow: sun   sunflower   smiley faces   lemons   squash   beans   golden
  • purple: lilac   lavender   dusk   dawn   majestic   regal   royal   amethyst

Working closely with the ‘show not tell’ concept, students considered the different aspects of a character that could be made immediately available to a reader under three domains:

Appearance                        physique                     clothing

Actions                                movement                  gestures

Speech                                dialogue                       internal monologue

Their homework was to develop a character profile – name, age, occupation – and write:

  • one paragraph as a descriptive pause
  • shorter paragraph detailing an action
  • three lines of dialogue
  • one paragraph revealing their prime emotion or motivation for being in the gardens




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