(…continuing a simple walkthrough on the most basic elements of the short story)
What exactly is a character, anyway? How do they fit into the art of short story writing, and what do we need to know about them?
The short answer is this: characters are the elements of a story which have the ability to act or choose. They’re like the actors on a stage, who tell the story through their actions. Usually, a story’s characters will be people. Not infrequently, animals will feature as characters, and sometimes even as protagonists. (The protagonist is the central character of a story — the character about whom the story revolves.) Occasionally — especially in children’s stories — things we normally think of as objects can become characters, as in The Little Engine That Could. Of course, there have always been fantastic and wholly imaginary characters such as gods and nymphs, dragons and fauns. With the advent of science fiction as a genre, robots and aliens have become familiar characters as well. In the long run, the range of possible characters is limited only by the imagination of the writer.
This is just a simple definition, however. The real nature of characters, and their impact on a story, is this: characters are the most important element of any story — short, long, or otherwise. Understand this well. Put it up on the wall above your workspace where you can see it every time you look up. Live by it. Breathe it.
Do you find this idea hard to accept? Think about it carefully. If characters aren’t the most important element of a story, what’s the alternative? Plot? Rubbish! Consider the writings of Charles Dickens. His plotlines are pitiful, weak things, dependent on coincidences and held together with unlikely deus ex machina. What keeps Dickens fresh and popular in the minds of readers throughout the world is the vigour and vividness of his characters. We continue to remember those characters long after we forget what Dickens’ books were supposedly about: Martin Chuzzlewit, Big Bill Sykes, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Uriah Heep, Mister Micawber, Ebenezer Scrooge — each one bringing a vivid image to mind for anyone who ever read of them.
Even in a book with a well-constructed plot, vivid characters remain much more memorable. Everybody remembers Long John Silver, with his parrot, and his missing leg, and his colourful language. Almost nobody can provide more than the sketchiest outline for the plot of Treasure Island. Ask any fan of Lord of the Rings to tell you about the story, and you’ll get a decent enough plot summary — the plot being extraordinarily simple for such a long book — but not much else. Now, ask that same person which of the characters in the book is their favourite, and take a step backwards to get out of the way!
What makes characters so important?
Two vital things.
- The characters allow the story to be told,
- The characters allow the readers a point of entry into, and identification with, the story.
In other words, the characters are the author’s agents, through which the story unfolds — and simultaneously, they are the means by which the reader gets to explore the story. As long as you remember these two roles, and build characters which fulfill them as completely as possible, people will enjoy reading what you have written. However if your characters lose either of these functions, it doesn’t matter how marvellous your story may be. Nobody will be interested. The biggest sin of writing fiction is to produce a story in which the characters aren’t able to let the story develop naturally, or in which the characters are flat boring and uninviting to the reader (or wildly overwritten, for that matter. An over-the-top character can be just as disastrous.)
In order to address the first issue, we select our characters carefully before we start writing our story. After all, we have to let the action unfold through our characters, so it’s no good choosing characters that simply cannot do what is needed. Think about the Indiana Jones series of films: the adventures of a two-fisted archaeologist with a sense of honour. Can you imagine what might have been if Spielberg had tried to use a kind-hearted young boy in the lead role? Would we really have been ready to suspend our disbelief long enough to allow the lead character to fist-fight the villains, run through deadly mazes, swing from whips and sweep the heroine off her feet?
Of course not. A kind-hearted young boy might be able to Free Willy, but he would be ridiculous battling Nazis, just as Doctor Jones would have been all at sea with two tonnes of cranky whale. Always pick the right character for the job.
There’s a short story I use when I wind up doing seminars or workshops around the “Introduction To Short Stories”. I just posted it, as a matter of fact, and I’ll link back to it as I keep going with this series. The piece is called The Unicorn, and it’s nothing special except that it is short, easily followed, and is readily open to analysis. (On top of that since it’s mine, I don’t have to worry about the rights!) Anyway, in this very simple tale, we are presented with only three characters — a father (our protagonist), his young daughter, and his adolescent son.
What happened to the unicorn itself in our list of characters? Well, the unicorn doesn’t really act or choose. The unicorn is simply there, in the story. We don’t know anything about the way it feels or thinks, or what it wants, and the only action it undertakes that has any affect on the storyline is the simple act of existing. Really, the unicorn is just part of the scenery. It is an important part of course, but only in that it acts as a plot device: an object which permits the conflict to develop and the plot to unfold. The story could as easily have hinged on a wishing well, or a mystical tree, or any one of an almost infinite range of things.
Now, let’s ask the first question about these three characters: do they allow the story to be told?
Well, since the story obviously has been told, the answer must be yes. That tells us nothing, so let’s refine the question: do the characters allow the story to be told in a believable and natural fashion? Are they the right characters for the job?
There are a couple of ideas to add to your writer’s toolbox here — the concepts of motivation, and of staying in character. Of the two, motivation is probably the more important. Motivation is the drive that causes your characters to do what they do. In the real world, people do what they do for a reason. Even trivial actions have motivation. We scratch because we itch. We smile because we’re happy. It stands to reason, then, that in a story, every action your characters undertake should have some kind of motivation. To put it another way: characters want something. And not just the protagonist. All characters have a reason for doing what they do.
Trivial motives such as happiness and itches may not seem important, but revealing such things about a character can be an excellent way of rounding a character out, and giving them more depth. We’ll deal with that a little later, however, and for the moment we’ll concentrate on the motivation which drives the important actions of a character; the actions which really impinge on the storyline. The important things to remember are that the motivation should almost always become clear to the reader at some stage, no matter what the action taken might be, and that the motivation should seem sufficiently strong to impel the character to take the actions described. Weak motivation (a trivial reason for action to which a character seems to over-reacts) makes a character appear ridiculous.
Lack of motivation is even worse. Characters who act because the writer needs them to act to make the story work are broken. Random attackers who show up so that your protagonist can demonstrate his deadly martial arts expertise; bystanders who appear purely to ask Dorothy Dixer questions to make the protagonist look smart — don’t laugh! I’ve seen these out there in the real world, in published (and sometimes even popular) books. Characters need a reason to act, okay? If you can’t figure out why one of your characters should do something that makes your story work, then you either need a new character or a new story.
Anyhow, the first lines of The Unicorn deal directly with the father’s motivation for taking his children to the Garden of the Unicorn. We are informed that the trip is costly, but that once his children heard about the unicorn, he had no choice. What is the father’s motivation? Obviously, he wants to keep his children happy. Is it believable? Certainly. It fits perfectly well with what we know about the behaviour of fathers. Is it clear? Very much so. Is it sufficient? Probably. Although we never find out exactly how much it costs, the price is never mentioned again, so we can assume it wasn’t too exorbitant. Further, we’re all familiar with the idea of arranging “treats” for children on holiday — and in the next paragraph, we learn that the family is indeed on holiday together.
So, we have a perfectly good reason for the father to take his kids to the Garden of the Unicorn. If we want to look further, we could ask why the kids want to go there. Do they have motivation? Well, yes: unicorns are a staple of fairy tales and children’s stories. It’s perfectly believable and reasonable that a pair of kids would want to see such a thing once they’d heard of its existence. The elements of the story are solidly in place.
If we continue through the story, analysing each action or decision taken by the characters, we find that in each and every case, there is a sound, believable motive — a motive which is also clearly apparent to the reader, so that there are no mysteries, no puzzling elements to character behaviours. Why does the boy bring his camera, against the rules of the garden? Because he thinks he can make a fortune from the film. Why does the father not stop him? Well, it’s not specifically stated, but we can assume that the father is willing to indulge his son, as fathers often do. And by the way the father talks of the price of the garden visit, we can see he has no reason to love the monks — so it makes intuitive sense to us that he might not be overly concerned with their no-photography rules.
For every action and decision taken by a character in the story, there is a clear, believable motivation. This is not merely the case for this sample story — this is the case for practically all stories. The only quality stories in which character motivation is obscure are stories where this obscurity is a feature of the story, or of the character. In a mystery story, for example, we may be led to ask why a particular character has done a thing. Usually, the action is explained in the course of the story, but there are times when we are deliberately left wondering why a character has acted in a particular way. Sometimes this is used to emphasise the strangeness of a character — in science fiction, for example, where creating an alien character may call for strange, alien motivation. Most often, a character’s motivation is left unexplained so that readers can form an opinion of their own, which becomes the focus of the story — was it a heroic action, or an accident? Was the character wise or foolish?
Having looked at the motivation of the characters in The Unicorn, we might as well as ourselves now whether they remain “in character”. By this, we’re asking whether or not they behaved in a consistent, believable fashion regardless of motivation, or whether they acted in ways which were unexpected and inappropriate. It is extremely important, if you’re going to keep your readers interest, for your characters to remain consistently “in character”. A character who is generous and kind should not suddenly become greedy or vicious without some strong motivation for the change. A character who is persistently a little slow on the uptake shouldn’t suddenly be able to interpret complex clues and solve difficult puzzles without some very convincing help or change. Remember: you want readers to move smoothly through the narrative without jolts and jarring notes which might remind them they’re reading a story. You want them to accept your characters as having some kind of reality — and in order to achieve that, your characters must behave in a manner your readers are able to accept.
Considering The Unicorn, it’s easy to see that the three characters do indeed remain “in character” throughout the story. The teenage boy has a “secret spy camera”, ordered from the Internet somewhere. When he sees that the unicorn is actually a surgically altered goat, he becomes a “hip-handed pillar of teenage sarcasm”, and leaves in a huff. In fact, he acts about the way we might expect a slightly spoiled thirteen-year old boy to act.
Likewise, the father is consistent. He begins the story as an indulgent, slightly weary father, taking his kids for a treat. It’s clear from the outset that he is fond of his children, and by the end, it is even clearer. The only thing which might be considered inconsistent is the fact that the father goes from being slightly weary and cynical about money, and about the unicorn experience, to being more open-minded and appreciative. Importantly, this change in him is the crux of the story. We can see in detail what has happened to change him, and the change in him acts to draw out and underscore the underlying theme of the story. More importantly still, the change in the father is consistent with what we know of the character. There’s a clear connection between the state of the character before the encounter with the unicorn, and the state of the character afterwards, which helps us as readers to accept the theme and the meaning of the story.
This is a vital point. As mentioned earlier, one of the most fundamental roles of the characters in a story — particularly the protagonist — is to act as a point of entry for the reader. In this case, the father provides precisely that. We read the story, and consciously or not, we can see ourselves in his place. We understand his motivation, we see the forces at work on him, and we accept the change in him because we can see that in his place, we might very well do the same. As readers, we identify with the protagonist of the story. If we cannot fathom the change in the protagonist, we cannot mentally “feel” it in ourselves and we will not enjoy the story. Therefore, it is vital that the change or growth of the central character is clear, well-motivated, and consistent with the nature of the character.
So far, we have discussed what characters do in a story, and what qualities they have to have in order to do them. We’ve also touched on the things that the reader must be able to find in a character for the story to succeed, but all of this has been purely analytical. We haven’t yet touched on the all-important how of characters — how we, as writers can create rounded, believable, motivated and consistent characters to carry our stories for us.
Unfortunately, there is no hard-and-fast answer. Writing is an art, and the construction of good characters is an integral part of that art. There are as many methods of portraying characters as there are characters, and each author will use a different combination of techniques, often varying them from story to story. The best we can do in an introduction like this is to touch on the various classes of technique which can be used — and the best way to do that is to refer back to the real world.
We meet real, live characters every day. There are wholly believable people with vivid, individual qualities all about us. What makes them individual? What helps us recognise a particular person, pick them out of a crowd, learn to trust or distrust them, like or dislike them? If we can pin down the way we perceive character in real people, we can get an inkling of the kinds of things we might do to build characters in stories.
Before discussing those things, it’s worth noting that there’s nothing wrong in stealing from real life. You want a really believable character? Pick somebody you know well, and tuck them into the story. Change their name, change a few outward details, and nobody will ever know. I promise you: this is one of the most common means by which new writers learn to portray characters, and it works very well…
… in the meantime, here are the three main ways in which characters are created within a short story narrative.
1) Description: first impressions are important. What you see of a person often forms the basis of a lasting opinion of their character. Therefore, the outward appearance of a character in your fiction is often a matter worthy of close consideration.
Unfortunately, while a paragraph or so of description is probably the most common method of characterisation in the short stories of beginners, it is far from the most effective. It can work well where a story is written in the first person, and the protagonist is viewing and assessing another character, because in this case, the viewing and analysis is part of the narrative of the story. However, if you’re writing in third person, the action of the story has to stop while the description goes on — and as we’ve observed before, there’s not a lot of room for that kind of thing in a short story. We want to pack our narrative into a small space, and ensure that it has plenty of punch and power, so we don’t want to spend vital paragraphs waxing lyrical just to establish that our villain is a real bad hat, for example.
In a short story, it pays to keep descriptive passages short and to the point. The less of it you do, the more effective it will be when you actually do it. In our sample story, there are no descriptions of the characters at all. The physical appearance of the characters is actually of no significance to the story, and therefore has been completely left out. The author is relying on the fact that most readers will be familiar with the situation, and with the basic family of characters depicted, so that they will mentally “fill in the blanks”. If you read the story, then close your eyes and think about it, you will probably find you have quite a clear impression of the way each of the characters looks, based on nothing but your own imagination and a few cues in the narrative. This alone should be enough to tell you that description is not a particularly effective method of establishing character — and this reflects real life, if you think about it. Although we may form impressions based on initial appearances, most of us have long since learned that appearances are often very deceiving, and it is better to withhold judgement until we really get to know the people involved.
If you do choose to characterize by description, in a short story, it is usually better to concentrate on one or two outstanding elements of the character — rather like an artist will sketch, or caricature a subject. Describe a nose well, and the reader will see a whole face. Describe a dress, and they will put a body inside it. There is an incredible array of prejudices and connotations which you can draw on to help you. Think of the cliches that you know: narrow, beady eyes, firm chin, hawk nose, leathery skin, etc. Each of these carries with it a weight of expectation which you can use to help you establish character. The trick is to avoid outright cliches while still drawing on the expectations of the reader to build a character by sleight-of-hand, as it were.
In passing, I’d like to point out one desperately overused cliche from the ‘description’ school of building character: the dreaded Mirror Scene. The Mirror Scene occurs when the protagonist pauses to check themselves out in a mirror or other reflective surface, and the writer uses the opportunity to display all those lovely bits of character that she thinks the readers are going to need.
Okay. Maybe it worked the first few thousand times. But seriously, can we put this one behind us? Mirror Scenes are horribly overdone. There are better ways of developing a character, as you’ll see. Far better to leave out the description altogether than to be responsible for yet another Mirror Scene…
2) Dialogue: What you say is what you are, declares the schoolyard rhyme. Not all stories contain dialogue, and not all characters are able to speak, but dialogue remains an excellent method of conveying character. In the real world, the way a person speaks tells us almost as much about them as the content of the speech itself. Accents betray origins, both geographical and socio-political. Vocabulary tells us about a person’s education. Volume, speed, and ease of speech tell us whether a person is shy or confident. Specific word choices betray a great deal about inner beliefs and prejudices. And of course, the actual meaning of the speech tells us what it is the character actually wants to be known.
All of these things, you will notice, can be conveyed purely through tricks of dialogue, without resorting to a single word of description. In our sample story, dialogue is the strongest single method of conveying character. The narrative itself is presented as a kind of dialogue, as it might be spoken by the protagonist. The word choices of the boy reveal his irritation and disgust when the unicorn turns out to be a goat — and they also reveal a great deal about his age, his maturity, and his expectations, which help us understand his irritation and disgust. Similarly, the word choices for the girl are appropriate to a much younger character, and help to convey her excitement and delight at seeing the animal.
As with any of these things, it’s important not to overdo it. You’re better off suggesting a Cockney accent with a little rhyming slang and a few dropped aitches than you are painstakingly trying to transliterate the speech of a true London East Ender. Again, your readers will fill in what they need if you start them in the right direction. In small doses, accents and dialects are a fine way to suggest character, but when overdone, they’re poison. An accent which is too heavily emphasized becomes obtrusive, and prevents the reader from flowing comfortably through the work. Worse still, it can rapidly become cliched and irritating.
A tip about writing dialogue: don’t mess with your speech tags. The word you want is ‘said’. Not ‘yodelled’, ‘yowled’, ‘coughed’, ‘blurted’ or any of the rest of them. The old rule about strong verbs does not apply here. You want to draw attention to the dialogue itself, not the verb it hangs from. It’s okay to vary the speech tag once in a while, when it’s extremely helpful. But a long passage in which characters speak to one another by intoning, growling, yelling, whispering and so forth just gets weird. It’s guaranteed to break that all-important sense of immersion.
Even worse are the speech tags that don’t relate to speech. Yes, you can blurt out a phrase… but you can’t “emote” a sentence. If your speech tag invokes an idea which is not about making noises by breathing out through the mouth, forget it. Seriously. Forget it. I never, ever want to read another story in which characters ‘forebode’ anything.
3) Habits, Actions and Choices: In the real world, actions are the most important part of a person’s character. We know a person by what they do, from the little stuff like habitually running their fingers through their hair or sucking their teeth when they’re thinking, all the way up to the really testing stuff — life or death decisions, permanent choices that change lives.
The same is true of fictional characters. In a novel, much of what a character does may have more to do with establishing character, and helping stay in character, than it does with advancing the plot. In a short story, we are much more constrained, but the principle still holds. It is in this area where the rules about maintaining consistency and establishing clear motivation are most important.
Habits, too, are very effective methods of providing a character with some depth. Habitual actions are undertaken without any conscious motivation, and as such, they provide a window onto the unconscious side of a character which cah be very revealing. Think of the habitual behaviours you have seen in the real world: spitting, nose-picking, straightening clothing, rubbing chins, licking lips, etc — these things act not only as identifiers, but as cues to underlying attitudes and persona. Stage and screen actors are well aware of this, and will often imbue a character with a simple, defining habit. Anyone familiar with Patrick Stewart playing Captain Picard of the Star Trek series will remember his habit of straightening his uniform when he stands, for example. It doesn’t register consciously when you see it, but if you look for it, you will realise that he does it over and over, in scene after scene — and this mannerism becomes identified with the character.
As always, it is important not to overdo these things. A character with a mass of habits, tics and mannerisms is as irritating as a character with an impenetrable accent. A character who invariably and inevitably chooses to do evil, or relentlessly chooses to be good is a boring character, difficult to believe in or identify with. Flawed, complex, occasionally contradictory characters are the most interesting kind, and by far the easiest for your readers to accept.
The final question we need to ask about characters is this: how much character does a character need?
To answer that, it’s most effective to go back and look at the roles that characters play in unfolding a story. Your central character, or protagonist, is likely to be on-stage through most of the story. In order for readers to understand and identify with the changes in the central character, his motivations must be very clear and very consistent. Similarly, his character must be strongly developed so that readers can see the changes taking place. Therefore, your central character should have all the character-building elements that the story can withstand. Remember, though, that moderation is the key.
Surrounding the protagonist, there will usually be a gallery of lesser characters — support characters. Really strong support characters, such as major villains, need to be well worked too. However, in a short story, the clarity and complexity of their motivation can afford to be much less thorough than that of the central character. After all, the story belongs to your protagonist, right? We’re interested in seeing how it affects him, and the theme will be expressed through him, not through your villain or through the sidekick, or the comedy relief, or any of the other support characters. In a short story, it is often enough simply to suggest a motivation for support characters. As long as they behave consistently, the readers will supply a great deal for themselves.
The final class of characters are the bit-players. Spear-carriers. Bartenders. Passing strangers. These characters are so close to being scenery that they might as well be considered in the same category. However, a lot rests on them. While motivation isn’t such an issue, it’s still important to give these characters a splash of colour, something to make them stand out a little. Just a touch, mind you. A spear-carrier would certainly never warrant a full paragraph of description in a short story, but they might “peer with bloodshot eyes,” or “spit greasily on the floor,” for example. Not every spear-carrier needs this kind of thing; it would quickly become very trying for your readers.
Characters are the most important elements of a story. They are the actors through which the story is played out, allowing it to unfold naturally through their actions, and they also serve as a vehicle for the reader to enter the story. As a result, it is important that characters remain consistent in their behaviours, that those behaviours are believably part of the characters, and that the characters have clear motivation which the readers can understand and accept.
Actually building “character” is a complex exercise which displays the writers art. The strongest elements of character come from the actions and decisions made by the character during the story, which reveal the inner nature of the character. Dialogue is a very effective method of showing the thoughts and desires of a character, and provides a valuable opportunity to give depth to a character. Description is the least effective method of character-building, and the most over-used.
The amount of effort involved with character building should be directly in proportion to the importance of the character in the narrative — and most important of all, the “less is more” rule applies quite sharply to characterization. It’s far better to suggest a character with a few succinct lines than it is to spend a page or so working up exotic habits, exciting dialogue, and scintillating description.
Final warning: characterization is probably the single element of storytelling which is most prone to cliche. Precisely because we need to sketch vividly and succinctly, we are in danger of choosing elements which we can be sure the readers will understand and react to — which frequently become cliched. Check your characters closely!