Do you write short fiction?
If so, you know that it’s a completely different medium from novels. So much so it can boggle the mind.
And characterization is of course one of those differences.
You already know you have such a tiny bit of space to convey the gist of the story, the time and place, and who these people are.
As a short-story editor and author, what I often see are cardboard cutouts standing in place of real characters. And you already know what that does—it makes the story flat.
So how do you make sure your people are three-sided, flesh-and-bone real folks, and keep it all rich?
Let’s take a closer look.
֎ First off, short stories are a slice of life. Novels are too, although they can span much more than that. But fiction in short form, by its very definition, brings to life a spec in time.
The Key: Zero-in on the character’s moments in the story. All else is just the path to get there.
֎ Flashbacks work very well here:
You can bring in bits of history of the character that deepen him further.
The purpose of character backstory is to motivate your characters for this story, where they are now, and to provide the reader with a deeper understanding. Weave it into your story organically by slipping naturally through portals like sense memories, pictures, setting, or unique phrases. Include only backstory that deepens the character’s story goal and/or reveals character.
The Key: Every single word counts. You, as the author, must know everything about everybody. But your reader only needs what counts in this story.
֎ Pieces of information that convey a recurring trait prove helpful as well:
Words such as never, always, still, and another suggest your character’s world before the opening of this story. Example: He got drunk again last night.
These words give your reader deeper instant insight into the character.
They Key: Such things revealed or discovered can suggest backstory without needing to break for a flashback.
֎ Work in emotion through character description:
To do this, weave in physical descriptions through action. Rather than, ‘He had wavy black hair,’ write, ‘He ran his fingers through his black hair, attempting to tame the unruly waves.’ That way, I can see him and get a feel for his own unruly temperament, all within one sentence.
The Key: use this sparingly, but use it.
֎ Know your characters inside and out:
Know all the nuances of your characters, in addition to the main issues, especially in a short story, in order to convey them on the page.
Remember that you are responsible for making your characters flesh-and-blood creatures, with a past, a present, and a future. You must know as many things about a person as possible, and way more about one than is included in the story.
Make a mini-scrapbook about each character. Pictures, dialogue snippets—an imaginary map to your character that contains everything you know about him or her. Character sketches, character files, whatever you choose to use can be modified at any time, and even discarded once you know your character inside and out.
Know their childhoods (even to the point of how she felt at six when her cocker spaniel died). Know not only the facts of their education, but also how difficult getting through geometry was. What does she love? Hate? How does he get along with his brothers? Who are their friends–not names and from which family they come, but who are these people? What is his most distinguishing character trait? His likes/dislikes? What are their horoscopes? Their eccentricities? Recurring problems or conflicts? How do they react within their environment?
The Key: get to know everything about your people.
֎ Use scene setting to convey emotion:
How your character views/feels about what he’s seeing can bring so much depth to him, in few words. When you evoke the emotion of your viewpoint character, you don’t have to tell me what he’s feeling. Use metaphor, imagery to evoke that.
This belies history as well, and causes your reader to wonder why, for example, his heart surged as the sun rose red over his world.
The Key: use this sparingly as well, but use it throughout your story.
֎ Continue to increase tension to make your story a page-turner:
Building tension involves raising stakes, manipulating pacing, and raising questions (Why is he getting so drunk? How can he go on now that his family is murdered?). A sudden wind, a rising stench, or a jarring noise can be a portent of doom while ramping up suspense.
It’s our job as writers to manipulate atmosphere and pace to the best possible advantage. This puts your character in danger, and we see what he’s made of.
The Key: manipulate the stakes to play upon your character’s Achilles’ Heel.
Because as you know, characters drive your story.
Even in short fiction, they must be flesh-and-blood, three-sided, real people. I don’t want to know about them. I want to know them. Breathe life into your people. Add flesh. Add features. Add emotion, intelligence, background—add dimensions.
All in that oh-so-brief snippet of time and space.
Work with your short-story editor to make your characters powerful, intriguing, and rich.
Because isn’t that your goal?