Characterization: Why Short Stories are Limited by the Number of Characters Therein
By Bev Walton-Porter
I'll be discussing characters today—your characters, specifically.
If you’ve done a rough outline and perhaps started piecing together a skeleton foundation for a short story, then chances are you already have your characters in mind.
It’s very difficult to visualize a story without some idea of the players in the drama or comedy. In fact, I’d venture to say it’s impossible to visualize a story concept without some type of character popping into your mind.
Characters make the story live and move and breathe. Plot is important, of course, but what is plot without the characters that bring the situations to life? Readers want to jump into skins of other people–even people with whom they have nothing in common.
As writers, it’s easy to say we are readers, as well. Every writer I’ve ever met began as a reader. It’s a natural progression, of course. As a reader you vicariously experience life through the eyes of characters involved in stories.
Plots are meant to take your story to a climax and resolution, but the vehicles which move us to that goal are the characters themselves. This is one of the two vital ingredients of stories—both short and long.
In short stories, however, you would be hard-pressed to crowd hundreds of characters into a 2,000-word piece of work.
You should try to stick to a handful of characters at the most. Anything different and you’ll probably alienate your reader. Novels give you enough space and freedom to explore numerous
characters; a short story does not. In shorter pieces, your framework is limited and beyond confusing your reader with barely-known characters who jump on and off the stage, you could cause your readers to lose interest and stop reading entirely. This, of course, is the last thing you want to do as a writer!
Author and editor Michael Seidman once wrote that 99 percent of all writers who sent him manuscripts began with what happened in a story, rather than to whom it happens. He noted that flat characters will make a piece of writing flat, and as an editor at a publishing company, he wouldn’t work with that particular author. Basically, lifeless characters lead to diminished sales—or no sales!
Avoid the “this guy” syndrome, as Mr. Seidman puts it. You may have the plot, but you must flesh out the characters—especially the MAIN one, or protagonist -- before you have ANY story. I’ve yet to read a short story without characters. Someone has to carry out the wonderful or dastardly deeds, and as a writer, you should be as familiar with those characters as you are with your own self. If you aren’t, your plot won’t matter one whit.
So how do you come up with characters, you ask? How do you discover the people who will people your short story? This one is easy: one of the best sources you have for finding characters is living life itself. By watching, observing people you know, strangers and even yourself.
A word of extreme caution is necessary here now.
You can get into big trouble by using the specific details of people you know. And it can be very embarrassing and costly for friends or family members to recognize themselves in your story.
“But didn’t you just say . . . ?”
Yes, I said that.
However, there’s a simple adjustment you must make. Go ahead and use people you know as the beginning of your characters, but then use the process of interrogation, or questioning your characters, to turn the people you think you know into people that aren’t really people you know. Literally interview your characters, ask a lot of “what if” questions, see what your instincts tell you about the character, and make sure to strip the extraneous features.
Also, if you’re modeling a character on your Aunt Sue, it doesn’t mean you have to make your character look like Aunt Sue. Give your character different looks, some character tags or quirks apart from Aunt Sue, and mix the other details. You’re basically remaking your Aunt Sue into a whole new person. Only you’ve used her as a starting point, not as the finished product.
As for the interrogation process, you literally make a list of questions to ask your characters to see what they tell you. It sounds off the wall, but it does work! Give it a try. You’ll be surprised at the results. Getting to know your characters means you must know what they look like on the outside, AND how they think and feel on the inside, as well. If you miss this important step in writing your short story, you’ll literally be writing a story peopled with strangers!
When bringing your short story characters to life, you must find out what each character’s motivation is. Why does he do this, but not that? And his or her motivations must resonate with the character. A reader knows instantly if a character does, indeed, do something out of character. Readers are smart like that. Your character’s actions must make sense, and there must be a reason for doing that particular action. Better yet, those particular actions must make sense to the story. If the actions don’t contribute to moving the story forward, then why add it in the first place?
Think about your characters’ pasts and reputations, where they grew up, who their families are, how educated they are, what their habits are, and how they got to this point (where your story begins). What was the road leading to the roles they play in your short story? Knowing these things will make your story and your characters more authentic. It will also do something else–it will be a safeguard against having your characters act uncharacteristically. And that’s one thing readers definitely notice!
In your story, you’ll have several types of characters. Your major characters are the ones we care about. Their actions move the story to a satisfying conclusion—and these characters are good or bad—protagonist (good) or villain/antagonist (bad).
When working with major characters, remember this: An appealing character strives against great odds to obtain a worthwhile goal.
Second, you may have characters who serve as minor characters. These are the ones who make a difference in the plot of the story, but they won’t show up all the time throughout the story.
Generally, minor characters perform one or two actions in a story, then exit stage. They may add an interesting turn to the plot, but they play no major role in how the continuing story unfolds.
Don’t allow your minor characters to upstage your major ones.
Finally, you may have walk-on characters who show up in your story for a specific purpose, then disappear just as quickly. They still have a reason for being there, but their roles are extremely minor.
One mention here regarding naming your characters–be careful what you name your people because you just might get it! What I mean is this: when we hear a person’s name, we generally hold an idea of how this person acts. When I say Melvin Smerdstuffer, would your mind conjure up a dashing, romantic hero? Probably not. How about Charles Dickens’ character, Ebenezer Scrooge? Sound like a generously happy-go-lucky guy? Not.
For me, I’ve had luck using books with baby names. It’s fun to find the meaning of names, and often I discover ones I would have never thought of on my own! You can also search the Internet for sites pertaining to names and their meanings.
One intriguing site is http://www.kabalarians.com. There’s an extensive list of names here, in alphabetical order. Just be careful what you ask for in a name, your character just might get it!
This week, work on bringing your own story’s characters to life. List the characters in your short story and work up character sketches for each. Begin with physical characteristics (height, weight, eye and hair color, etc.) and proceed to more in-depth interviewing of your characters—their backgrounds, beliefs, and lifestyles.
By the end of this week, you should know the people who live in your story.
Once you’ve discovered more about your characters, work some more on the rough draft of your short story. Use the information in this column to refine what you’ve written so far. Remember, what you write in the first draft won’t be the end result. Don’t be afraid to go back and make changes!
Have fun with it and make the story YOUR story using your own private writing voice.
Bev Sninchak (writing as Bev Walton-Porter and Star Ferris) is a professional writer/author who has published hundreds of stories on a wide variety of subjects and written four books: “Sun Signs for Writers,” “Mending Fences,” and “The Complete Writer: A Guide to Tapping Your Full Potential,” co-authored with three other writers. Her fourth book, “Hidden Fire,” is due out in 2009 from Whiskey Creek Press.
Bev also works as a contract editor, writing instructor and creativity coach. She has edited and published the award-winning e-zine for writers, Scribe & Quill, for the past eleven years. She is a member of The Authors Guild as well as the co-founder of the International Order of Horror Professionals.
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