Amateur Advice: How I bring my short story characters to life
Every good story has a beginning, middle and end. The beginning introduces the reader to characters, setting, theme, and the central conflict. The middle places the protagonist in dire circumstances. The ending reveals how the protagonist either overcomes, or is overcome by, the conflict — depending on whether the story is comic or tragic.
When writing a short story, all of these elements must still be present. Where a novel gets 75,000 words or more, the short story gets 5,000 to 10,000, and that’s on the long end of the medium.
This poses a challenge to me as a writer when trying to create nuanced characters and plots. It is a constant struggle to make my writing clear and concise enough to convey my ideas while still remaining within the format. There is a process that I use that helps me overcome this, though.
1. Begin with a stereotypical character. This allows me to set a template in someone’s mind. Within one paragraph, I can associate my character with a given stereotype that may take pages or chapters in a novel. Generalities exist because they are generally true. I use this to my advantage. For example, the social perception of an athelete is someone who is physically gifted, but lacking in mental capacity. By allowing the reader to form this opinion on their own, I can skip quite a bit of characterization. This saves my word count for showing the reader how they are wrong about the character.
2. Allow your plot to develop your character. In a short story, my characters and plot really have to form a symbiotic relationship. I simply do not have the word count to use the same bag of tricks a novelist uses. By using an easily recognizable template, it allows me to play with the readers perception of the character. I can guess what the reader will think of my character, and what they may expect my character to do. Armed with this information, I can sculpt my plot to surprise and entertain the reader by preying on their preconceived notions.
3. Subtlety is key. I try my hardest not to tell my reader what to think about events or characters in my stories. I try to allow my diction to lead the reader to assumptions and revelations about them. Instead of telling my reader that my protagonist athelete is really smart, I might try to find a way to squeeze in a reference to the completed crosswords he has in his room. Instead of telling the reader that he wakes up a 5am to work out, I may mention that he woke up late drooling on a book. The idea is to subtly shift the reader’s perspective from the template to your character.
The whole goal of this process is to allow the reader to retain the 90% of the character that fits the template, while delving into the 10% where your character differs. This saves wordcount that you may be tempted to spend on characterization that does not add to the plot. The plot, then, can be more robust and engaging because your words are freed from unnecessary obligations. In the end, the short story is all about my economy of words.
Disagree with my process? Have something to add? Feel free to comment on how you bring your short story characters to life.