Captain Ahab's Weird Wide World: Australian Magic

article by Sue Murray

Learning intention

I am learning to identify the way authors and illustrators develop characters’ appearance, personalities and relationships through their surroundings and imaginations, so that I can develop more interesting and rounded characters in my writing.


Success criteria

  • I can recognise the way May Gibbs used her Australian surroundings to find ideas for characters
  • I can use my own surroundings to inspire ideas for characters
  • I can develop further attributes of my own characters, such as their personalities and relationships with each other


Essential knowledge

Information about developing well-rounded characters can be found in the English Textual Concepts video Character.


After reading the article, watch the video Gumnut Babies read by Ellie-May Barnes. Reiterate that May Gibbs created the settings and characters for her stories from her own surroundings of the Australian bush. Discuss the aspects of the illustrations that students find familiar, such as the gumnuts, eucalyptus leaves and animals.

Visit the Stories and Characters page of the May Gibbs website and scroll through the Discover Characters section. Explore the characters together, or if time and technology access allow, have the students explore the characters themselves. Ask students to identify parts of these characters that exist in their own surroundings. Answers may include wattle, banksia, kookaburras and lizards.

Ask students to point out what they like or notice about the way May Gibbs has created the illustrations of her characters. Highlight the way she used the appearance of the Big Bad Banksia Men to inform their personalities, describing them as “Dark, hairy, knobbly, many-eyed creatures.” Point out that they are also friends with Wicked Mrs Snake, who hatches plots with them. Discuss the way she has used different things from the bush, such as gumnuts, gum blossoms and boronia flowers to create hats or bonnets for her baby characters.

If possible, take students on a nature walk in the playground. Alternatively, display online images of the local area, particularly ones that show natural surroundings such as parks and waterways. Ensure students have blank paper and pencils for sketching. Inform students that they should pay attention to the natural surroundings and sketch things that they find interesting. This may include leaves, flowers, pinecones, reeds, birds or lizards. Ask students to consider what the personality may be of the things they chose to sketch and who else they may be friends or enemies with.

Students should then further develop characters from their sketches, creating a name for each and some brief information such as their personality, preferences and friends. An example of this may be:

“Lady Grevillea is very posh and bosses around the smaller flowers. She is friends with Bobby Bottlebrush, who always tries to convince her to be a little friendlier to others.”

If time allows, students may wish to present their characters to their classmates.