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Learning About Characters with Clifford The Big Red Dog

A while ago (as in, over a year ago) our lovely Amanda blogged about how Thomas the Tank Engine can teach basic writing skills. This stuck with me, because I think it's actually true of a lot of children's shows. They're designed to be a little over-the-top, because a three-year-old isn't going to catch the same personality or lesson subtleties that an adult might.
So what does Clifford the Big Red Dog teach about characters? Lots. You only have to watch this show two or three times before you have a ridiculously clear picture of everyone's personalities. Like so:

- Clifford: Big, friendly, always tries to do the right thing.
- T-Bone: Shy and wimpy, but sweet.
- Cleo: Loud, kind of obnoxious, gets the other dogs into trouble a lot.
- Emily Elizabeth: Sweet, helpful, loved Clifford so much he went from a tiny little puppy to his giant self.
- Jetta: Emily Elizabeth's friend, a total snot, selfish, thinks everything she does is more important than everything anyone else does.
- Mr. Bleekman: Emily Elizabeth's grouchy old neighbor, dislikes Clifford because he's messy/large.

...and you get the idea. Now these characters may not be as layered as a normal person, or a character you'd want to write in your book, but the fact that I (or anyone) can so easily distinguish them from one another is really telling. And it's not because other characters say, "Jetta was snobby." Or "T-Bone was wimpy." No, it's because it shows me.

For example, there's an episode where Jetta invites her friends over and has them each bring their favorite movie to have a movie marathon. Her friends all want to watch the movie Emily Elizabeth brought first, but Jetta says no. First, they're going to watch a whoooole mountain of home videos. Of Jetta. And she gets annoyed when, hours later, the others are all giggling at something Clifford's doing outside the window rather than raptly watching her childhood triumphs.

And that's not all I've learned from Clifford (I know! Who knew the benefits of PBS?) See, there's also the occasional episode where someone acts WAY out of character. And when that happens, I think, huh? What's going on here? Like in one episode where Mr. Bleekman, who is always crabby about Clifford, even over the littlest things, is only mildly upset about the fact that Clifford--who misses Emily Elizabeth, away on a trip--is howling and howling late in the night. He goes with the rest of the island to comfort Clifford, and seems more confused ("What the heck is that noise??") than disgruntled ("Argh Clifford RAGE.") which doesn't mesh with the person who gets annoyed because Clifford eats too much food.

And it pulls me out of the episode. Not that I'm deeply invested in each Clifford episode, but if this were, say, a YA novel, I wouldn't be thinking about the plot anymore - I'd be thinking, "Why is that character acting so out of character?"

So there you have it. Some food for thought, courtesy of Clifford the Big Red Dog.
Kaitlin Ward

Kaitlin Ward is the author of Bleeding Earth, Adaptive Books 2016, and The Farm, coming 2017 from Scholastic.

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  1. Hello, Kristin. I’d like to invite you to take a look into my blog; It's a web comic I started for fun. I’d like to receive suggestions and opinions.

  2. Oh, Clifford, you dog.

    ...Couldn't resist.

    Anyway. Absolutely adorable, and great points. :] Show, don't tell, character edition, Clifford style.

  3. Great post! I'll never look at kids tv shows in the same way again :)

  4. off topic: who cleans up after Clifford?

    Just always bothers me, they're on an island and everything, you know?

    VERY helpful post, now I will watch Clifford with new eyes.

  5. KO: I always wonder that too. What do they do with all his...excrement? And where on EARTH do they get all that dog food?

  6. Ooohh Mr. Bleekman. LOL. It's so true that when a characters acts freaky it just ruins the whole little world the reader sets up for themselves. Love this!

  7. The Voice actors on Clifford are SUPER annoying. But you make a good point about SHOWING their personality.

  8. Cool observation about children's shows! Makes me feel less shameful about watching them when both college and writing are frying my brain. :P

  9. I love this kind of stuff. Here's some writing advice from Jack Sparrow :)

  10. I have a two-year-old sister so I watch Clifford (and other kids' shows) all the time.
    Actuly, there has been a few diforent epesods where Mr. Bleekmen is out-of-character. They even have a epasod where they go back and look at all thous times.

    One other kids' show that I like for an exampul of the hole character personality thing is The Backyardagans (I think I spelled that right...)
    It's bacicaly about five friends who act out stories and go on adventurs every day.
    You can defenetly tell a lot about there characters from seeing what they pretend to be.
    For exampule; Pablo is both paranoyed and a neat freek so in one epasod he plays a grumpy pirat capten who has to have his entier ship sparkling clean all the time.

    Okay, so I think this comment is long enough... cuz I can just talk about kids shows ALL DAY.

    (sorry for some typos, my spell check isn't working today...)


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Item Reviewed: Learning About Characters with Clifford The Big Red Dog Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kaitlin Ward