‘I always have to know my characters in a lot of depth–what clothes they’d choose, what they were like at school, etc . . . And I know what happened before and what will happen after the part of their lives I’m dealing with.’ Alice Munro
“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”
Character description is crucial to a good story that is both readable and convincing. For a reader to get inside your story, the characters have to seem real. They need to have characteristics which are compelling and hook a reader at an early point in the story. As writers, there are so many elements to plotting a novel which need to be considered, that it can at times be head spinning.
You have to focus on scene setting, dialogue, narrative, pace, story arc, point of view, voice and many other aspects. Without good characters, involving skillful characterisation from the author, the story will fail to bring the reader to the last page. So how do you pen characters who are enticing, captivating, abrupt, frustrating, lovable or frightening?
Study real people – Watch people’s behaviour, body language and conversations. Fictional characters need to take elements from real life. Even sci-fi has elements that can be observed from every day life. Study human behaviour and you will be much closer to creating characters who resonate with the reader.
“By the end, you should be inside your character, actually operating from within somebody else, and knowing him pretty well, as that person knows himself or herself. You’re sort of a predator, an invader of people.” ― William Trevor
Watch films – They can be a good way of observing character traits and provide ideas for your characters. Look for what is not being said, look at the body language and each character when put into different situations and learn from great scriptwriters. Remember that you have to put together in words what a director will create with images and action. The two forms are similar but the difference is that you have a blank canvas with the reader’s imagination. Create atmosphere through your characters.
“As a writer, I demand the right to writer any character in the world that I want to writer. I demand the right to be them, I demand the right to think them and I demand the right to tell the truth as I see they are.” – Quentin Tarantino
Read books (classics, if you enjoy them) – The classics are still being read because they are timeless and because they contain characters who readers can relate to, characters they love and hate. This is the essence of good story telling.
“I wish we could sometimes love the characters in real life as we love the characters in romances. There are a great many human souls whom we should accept more kindly, and even appreciate more clearly, if we simply thought of them as people in a story.” ― G.K. Chesterton
Write character profiles – Imagine that your character needs a curriculum vitae for a job interview. What would you write for each one? Think about their individual skills and experiences. Push it further and consider locations or events which might have affected them and shaped their character.
“The characters in my novels are my own unrealised possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented.” ― Milan Kundera
Put together a pin board of images – this helps if you are very visual. I use Pinterest for this and I find it also engages readers who are interested in your work. Having a selection of portraits can help to remind you of features and posture, if you wish to use this method. Some people would rather writer freely with no prompts and therein lies the truth that no two writers work the same way.
“Be sure not to discuss your hero’s state of mind. Make it clear from his actions.” (Letter to Alexander Chekhov, May 10, 1886)” ― Anton Chekhov
Andrew Miller, Booker and Whitbread shortlisted author, wrote a Guardian article on Creating Characters.
Melissa Donovan has written a good blog post on tips for character writing.
Writer’s Digest wrote an article on How to Craft Compelling Characters.
I am in the thick of writing short stories and I really enjoy the punch that you can use to mould a high-impact piece of writing. Last night I read the new issue of Paraxis, a wonderful online publisher of short stories, and I was impressed by the range of prose delivered and the tension created in each short story. This current issue 04 is a publication of the works of both developing and established writers and the combination gels in a surprisingly smooth run of stories:
by Alison Moore
Looking out of Broken Windows
by Dan Powell
by Emma Seaman
by Lorrie Hartshorn
by Stuart Snelson
The House in the Woods
by Emily Cleaver
Dan Powell’s metaphorical cracked window panes were still on my mind this morning. The other stories had a similarly disturbing effect. Good writing, writing which lasts, leaves you feeling changed, it forces you to see the world through a different lens and nowhere more so than through a short piece of fiction.
My personal preference is for literary fiction, as that is what I immerse myself in when I read and write, but I was given Ian Rankin’s collection of short stories, Beggars Banquet, for Christmas. In a disturbing and gripping set of stories he covers stories of Edinburgh’s underworld to startling effect. It is important to read outside your genre and read widely, so my repertoire of books is expanding. There was an interesting review of Rankin’s collection on Amazon from a reader who does not usually read short stories who said it was like reading a whole novel in a short story.
This is the essence of the the short story. It should be a complete story in somewhere under 5,000 words. Many are a good deal shorter, but never lacking in impact, never leaving the reader wondering about the rest of the story, apart from to search for meaning and to think about where the characters have been and how they will be impacted by an event or a ending.
Fish Publishing, who publish anthologies of the works of international emerging writers and poets, describes the writing of short stories as being, ‘a glance at the miraculous. Joyce used a religious word. He called his stories ‘epiphanies’. A good short story is almost always about a moment of profound realization. Or a hint of that. A quiet bomb. There is a record by the American singer Tori Amos called Little Earthquakes. That’s a good metaphor for a short story. Often, a good short story will be a little earthquake.’
In an Introduction to the 1997 Fish Anthology, Dog Days & Other Stories,
Joseph O’Connor says this about the writers of this genre:
What kind of strange creature is a short story writer? I must confess that I don’t know. A high priest or priest of art? A wounded soul who can’t understand the real world and thus feels a need to re-invent it? A moralist? A Spinner of yarns? An entertainer? A prophet? Probably all of these things. Possibly none.
The single fact I can be sure about is this: writers are watchers. The one and only thing they have in common is an ability to look at the everyday world and be knocked out by it. Stopped in their tracks. Startled. Gobsmacked.
In an Introduction to the 2003 Fish Anthology, Feathers and Cigarettes & Other Stories, Pat McCabe quotes Frank O’Connor in saying that the form is as close as you could get to the lyric poem:
Henry Thoreau said that it didn’t have to be long but it would take a long while if you wanted to make it short. What was he saying this about? About the form we know as the ‘short story’. Everyone over the years has had something to say on the subject. For V S Pritchett it was an athletic form. If you got a good start you could sprint to the end, unlike the nineteenth-century novel. For Frank O’Connor, it was the closest you could get to the lyric poem, in that the novel requires far more logic and far more knowledge of circumstances, whereas a short story can have the sort of detachment from circumstances that lyric poetry has.
Katherine Ann Porter wrote her stories in one sitting. Or so she said. But then writers say all sorts of things. Another thing that was said about the form – and I think it’s a good one – can be attributed to William Trevor. That it’s the ‘art of the glimpse’. Meaning that if the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story tends more towards impressionism. It is an explosion of truth and its strength ought to lie in what it leaves out as much as what it puts in, if not more.
As an aside – Just after I finished writing this post I discovered Charles May’s post on The Secret Life of the Short Story. In it, he discusses the work of Alice Munro and William Trevor, two of the greatest short story writers in the world today. Munro has been compared to Chekhov. You can read a post on Chekhov’s short stories if you are interested.