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(This was originally written by me for a short story course I presented to a group of emerging writers two years ago.)
It takes guts to put down your innermost thoughts and keep on describing yourself over and over again. And that’s what we do. Every character we use in a story has a part of us in him or her. We can only create what we truly know – actually, we can only create well what we truly know. That is why the old saying is true – write what you know.
As an editor, I could correct the English grammar and punctuation if necessary, but no one can correct your ideas or how you want to present them. Someone can advise if your ideas are likely to be successful, but there have been too many success stories about people who have broken all the rules and become huge successes in spite of them. J.K. Rowling (pictured, after accepting an honorary degree from the University of Aberdeen) is a case in point. Who would ever have thought that a child’s tale about a boy wizard would take the world by storm and fire up everyone’s imagination the way it has?
So feel free to experiment…fling out ideas with great glee and abandon. Just one small word of caution: it’s a good idea to know the rules before you start breaking them.
To be successful, the short story must employ most of the same elements that a novel uses, but in substantially fewer pages. A lot of what I am saying here can be used in novel-writing and in non-fiction writing. Restating the foregoing, novels are just longer short stories, with certain differences created mostly by the additional length and the subsequent space you have to write your story in. Short stories range from 500 words to 5000 words. Longer than that is generally regarded as a novelette or novella.
In non-fiction, whatever you are writing about, you are telling a story. The fact that it is based on truth and real experience and research is somewhat immaterial. It is still a story.
Getting back to the short fiction story, there has been a lot of controversy amongst writers regarding what is the most important element in a story…is it the characters? Or is it the plot? Many people will say both. Very well, but what do you start with first…characters who do something extraordinary…or a plot outline that you will fill in with the characters as necessary to bring the plot to a successful conclusion?
Usually this depends on the type of person you are. If you are a people person, outgoing and friendly, or you love to read about people and what makes them tick, chances are you like to pick your characters and build the plot around them. If you are an idea person or very organized or tend to think in a linear fashion, chances are you want to have your plot in place and then create your characters.
We are going to start here with character development. You may not necessarily use these characters in your story, but it will be a good exercise.
Exercise 1: Think of a person with whom you have affinity – could be male or female, adult, contemporary or child. And then describe a character based on that person…perhaps the physical attributes, such as age, appearance, or method of dressing, or his/her nature, sense of humor, ambitions in life, or way s/he treats friends, and so on. You don’t have to describe everything, but do a good job of helping us to understand this character.
It’s best not to use all the characteristics of a real person. For one thing, if they recognize themselves in your story, you could be open for a lawsuit (infringement of privacy, for example). For another thing, as pointed out in Haley Whitehall’s Soldiering On Through the Writing Word, some writers regard describing a person whole as a form of stealing their identity. I tend to agree. But you can use, for instance, the friendliness of that person, mixed with the great smile of your Uncle Joe and your own feelings about emptying the garbage or driving downtown on an errand for your spouse. Trust me, you will come up with a real character who is still fictional.
Exercise 2: Write a simple situation involving this person. Keep the situation uncomplicated and something that you know about. It could be washing the dishes, or building a fence, or weeding the garden. Whatever it is, keep true to your composite description. Give your character a name. When you are writing about the situation, try bringing out some of the qualities you have noted in your description, like perhaps you have said that the person is always cheerful. So when you are writing, say, about her doing the dishes, you might have her singing a song to herself to show her cheerfulness. Wherever possible, show rather than tell about the person.
Try to make the situation at least 500 words. That’s not hard for novelists. I am just starting to rev my motors at 500 words, but it’s good practice to keep things concise.
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Let’s take a look at developing our character even further. Let me startle you a little by telling you that your whole story is, basically, character development, of one character or another. How can this be when the writer is talking about trees and the field. But how is the writer talking? Is she talking like a college professor or like a cowgirl? Like a computer expert or a waitress? They all talk differently. If you are telling the story from the point of view of your main, then any description in your book will be describing your character. Here are some examples:
The field looked like it had been mussed up some, like maybe a herd of cattle had just been driven through it and the dust hadn’t time to settle yet. (Cowgirl)
The field was a contrast of dust and greenery. Walking through it without getting dirty was going to be a challenge. (College professor)
It was a pretty field. Oh, maybe it was a little dusty in spots, but the green was just pretty enough to take your mind off the not-so-good spots in life. It was sort of like early morning in the diner. Quiet-like and a way to be with your own thoughts, even if you had the odd early customer coming in for coffee-to-go. (Waitress)
The field was just another place to walk through before getting back to work. Whoever invented nature should be shot. It was hot and dusty and had nothing to offer like an air-conditioned room made peaceful by the pleasant humming of his computer, the screen casting a pearly glow on his desk. (Computer nerd)
Now, these are just descriptions of fields, but by what is said, we understand more about the main character as well as getting a good, in-character view of the said field.
Exercise 3: Get your main character in mind and describe that field the way your main character would. Avoid having your main character actually DO anything in the field. Just have them describe it.
In any kind of dialogue, there are ample ways of describing your character. The way your character speaks is a development of the character. This is relatively easy to understand. If your character is uneducated, you have him talk in an uneducated way. You can throw in a few “ain’ts” and “it don’ts” (see how you have to know the rules before you can successfully break them?). Don’t have them do it too often, or you distract from the story. Anything you do to your story to make it hard for your reader to read is counterproductive. And today’s reader has to be hooked first and then kept hooked. There are too many other distractions for the modern person to engage in, primary of which is the computer.
Okay, so if your character is educated, you have her talk in an educated way. If she is excitable, she talks in an excitable way. If she is slow to respond, you have her talk sparingly.
Now, let’s take a quick look at reverse characterization. There are two ways to do this…one is our character’s description or reaction to someone else (and we need to know whether this someone else is likable or unlikable on their own – like a happy child or a tattletale).
If your character describes the likable person favorably, then you can see that your character is probably a little on the happy side him/herself – plus they are probably nice because they like kids. You can spin this a lot of ways.
If, on the other hand, you have your character describe the happy kid in a negative way, it can either describe your character’s character traits or show stress or something else.
The reverse is true for the descriptions of the unlikable character. If your character describes him favorably, you tend to think your character is either naïve or may be a little on the snitchy side themselves. There are all kinds of ways you can go with dialogue and narrative description (such as – Sherri thought Kyle was a little on the momma’s boy side, but perhaps that was what came of coming from a single parent home and only an older sister for a sibling. But did that mean he had to go and snitch to the teacher about the spat the two of them hurt each other with? Didn’t he have any more guts than that? It didn’t take being a rocket scientist to know you didn’t solve things by going to the teacher. )
There are several things we can learn from this bit here about both Kyle and Sherri.
Another way to describe your character is to move him or her into action. Everybody does things differently and every way they do things tells more about them. If your character consistently moves slowly, they might be in pain, or they might be old, or…you think of the reasons, but it is a description of your character. If your character can’t sit still and always fidgets, you get a better idea of her temperament. If they readily bristle and put up their fists easily, then they might be aggressive and with a short fuse. It all describes your character.
Remember, you can only describe a scene for so long before you HAVE to bring in a character. Otherwise your reader will get bored and put the book down, or worse, fall asleep.
Plot is very important, but without characters you don’t have a story. And yes, you can develop them as you go along to work alongside the plot. Just don’t forget to go back later to the beginning and make any necessary changes to keep the character…well, in character.
(The above three exercises are inserted for your fun and of course you are free to just do them in private, as exercises, to make use of whatever you have learned in this post. If you wanted to share any of it with me and our readers, we would love it, but don’t feel you are obligated. You could let us know how it worked for you, though. )
The foregoing text is © 2009 by Sandra Bell Kirchman. No copying or other use of this text is allowed without the express written consent of the author. All rights reserved.