Advice on characterization in short stories can be vague and frustrating, but I promise that mine is as concrete as the streets you walk.
“Tricks” is really a euphemism for the advanced mystic-level writing advice you’re about to get. I (l)earned them through blood, sweat, and crippling mental anguish. Here’s my resume:
- Twelve years of
- writing workshop barbarism and
- soul-vandalizing rejection from editors;
- millions of words of useless story drafts, and
- $100k of student loan debt
I bet you see a lot of on-writing articles that regurgitate the same beginner approaches to short story writing. I see them everywhere. And I always used to think to myself, “God, I wish someone would lay some advanced knowledge on me. I know the basics. Just give me the key to figuring this short story crap out.”
This is what I’ve said out to do for you, in a post that originally started at 12 “tricks,” but got slashed in half once I hit 3000 words. I know you ain’t got time for that.
So let’s get you off and running with six, and the next part of this two-part series will be up next week!
6 advanced-level tricks to characterization in short stories
1. Combine characters who serve the same function in your story
This often comes up in a short story workshop. As part of the short story as an art form, you should limit your scope as much as possible for the sake of overall concision. This includes the number of characters you put on the page.
Be wary of third wheel characters. A lot of amateur writers will put a character in the story that serves a function in the story that they falsely believe the antagonist cannot serve. A brief example from my own work.
In an early draft of my short story, “The Women in Grenada Part 2,” I had a character’s former boxing manager as an important character in the past who shaped the protagonist; then, I had a separate character who ran the illegal boxing ring that the main character took part in for money in the present. Then a brilliant woman in my weekly writing workshop said that it would be more powerful if I combined the former boxing manager and the illegal boxing ring hustler. They served the same purpose in the story, really, and in fact, this made the whole premise more emotionally resonant.
Look for opportunities like this in your short story. Remember that it’s all about condensing in short fiction, that less done well is more powerful in this form than having a lot of good elements.
2. Be careful about the timing and weight of characters who aren’t central to the story
In short fiction characters who get a lot of attention and get it early on are expected to develop and be the main character in a short story. Editors and readers will tell you without exception that red herring characters kill stories. An example might be starting a story focused on someone other than the point-of-view character.
Keep in mind that the word count wheelhouse is around 3000-5000 words right now in the current literary journal scene. You can’t breathe at this size. There’s good news though. Short stories should only have one POV character, until you’re good or big enough to smash that rule. So to be honest, all you need to do is not give supporting characters backstory, flowery descriptions, or excessive dialogue, unless it is crucial to the main character and their plot.
A second easy-to-follow trick here is avoiding name soup. Even you become expert at introducing characters, doling out too many first, last, and nicknames too rapidly, makes the reader feel as though their drowning in hot, boiling name soup. Consider ice-breakers back from college orientation: weak-kneed and self-conscious you meet a hundred people, and what, remembered ten names? The same goes here, but the reader is trying to determine which character they’re supposed to care about.
3. Have your character be interesting in the first place
I created a character/plot quadrant that explains a painfully simple way to ensure your characters are interesting.
Yes, you could argue this is oversimplified a bit. But I swear that over the years this has come up time and time again in workshops. Writers create normal average Joes or Jills, and thrust them into normal average worlds. Or, indicated by the German Shepherds, they put loco characters in frenetic, nonsensical worlds.
I give this advice all of the time, and I’ll give it to you now. Readers are more likely to care about your character, and secondarily, your plot, if you use contrast here. It’s inherently interesting and full of conflict to see crazy people cope with normal settings, and to see normal people cope with crazy settings.
4. Don’t mistake idiosyncrasies for character depth
A dumb idiosyncrasy, in the context of short fiction, would be the high school quarterback who also loves reading the Romantic poets. Or, say, the young woman who trips ovaries every weekend at raves but has a Beanie Baby collection she tends to meticulously. If the story pivots on these personality quirks then of course that’s an exception. But if the only purpose, as I intend with my examples, is to show that the author wants the readers to understand these characters have a level of softness to them… it’s dumb.
While idiosyncrasies can be meaningful and great, it’s not where character depth comes from. For instance, if that quarterback doesn’t go to the rager after a big win because he has to and wants to go take care of his mother who’s on hospice with terminal cancer, and he reads her Keats because she loves that, that’s depth. Ditto, if the raver is so hungry for an escape because her bank account is overdrafted and she lets psychologists study the affects the drugs have on her brain for extra dough, and the only way to fall asleep at the clinical trials is cuddling her Beanie Babies.
A common mistake amateurs make is telling the reader about quirks, instead of showing real depth.
5. Minimalism is an artistic style not a copout for weak ass characters
For the longest time, I struggled with revising my short stories. In fact, I’ve had years where I’ve done no writing other than first drafts because I was overwhelmed and confused by the process of revision. When I was younger my solution to this was just cutting. I thought “every word in a short story has to matter” meant that omission was the mission.
It didn’t help that my favorite writers were minimalists like Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and at one point even Amy Hempel. The truth is that minimalists wrote that way because it was how they best got their stories across. It’s not for everyone. I learned the hard way that the iceberg theory only works if you actually have the part the Titanic runs into and the submerged part, not just floating ice cubes. I.e., you can’t just slice, dice, and assume that your reader is going to care enough to interpret subtext in your story.
Put another way: nobody cares about the subtext of what someone they don’t care about says.
6. You have to read literary journals.
If we’re all being honest, it’s pretty overwhelming how many aspiring writers who want to publish in literary journals do not read literary journals. Literary journals and the short form itself are tailored for the experimental and avante-garde. To give you a spot-on analogy, reading literary journals is the equivalent of “staying up on what the kids are up to these days” in pop culture and music for us old folks. You can’t expect to become a part of a sub-culture if you aren’t immersed in it.
The good news is that you can use submission sites like Duotrope or Submission Grinder, to narrow down the hordes of lit journals to your specific genre and/or style. From there, simply read the journals to determine if they’re really a good fit for your work. Many offer free stories, but hell, maybe submit to your one dream publication and support them.
Bonus: citing a specific story you loved in your submission query letter as the reason you are submitting your story to that journal goes over really well with editors. Even if you don’t get published that time, you’ll be creating a relationship or at least some name recognition for next time.
I have to cut this in half because your time is precious. Enough amazing short story characterization advice for one sitting
So the additional 6 tricks of the 12 will be coming next week!
What you do for now is re-evaluate your stories.
You should also totally re-read this and share it far and wide. I’d also love to hear if any of these might help you in the comments, or feel free to ask for clarifications if you’ve got questions.