Here are 6 more advanced “tricks” for short story characterization
Here are the first six, which included:
- Combining characters who serve the same function in the story.
- Being careful about the timing and weight of non-central characters.
- Having your character be interesting in the first place.
- Not mistaking idiosyncrasies for character depth.
- How minimalism is an artistic style not a copout for weak ass characters.
- The reason you have to actually read literary journals.
If you haven’t read them already, read the first 6 short story characterization tricks, before moving on.
7. A character’s motivation can’t achieve clarity until you do
I once wrote a 75 page novella. Then I saw a movie with the same premise, changed it, and boiled it down to a now-published 25 page story. The exploratory writing of the fifty pages I cut taught me exactly what my character wanted.
Then I workshopped the story. And the character’s motivation and therefore the plot changed again in the next draft. If I hadn’t cut fifty pages and allowed other eyeballs to look at the story, I never would’ve achieved the distance I needed to make it publishable.
Figure out how you best achieve distance/clarity from your work, and do it.
8. What the hell does “Write what you know” mean in practice?
Ray Bradbury wrote this amazing book called Zen in the Art of Writing. Go buy it and read it now.
Two main principles I took away from reading it were that a short story should:
- Be about a topic that you either really love or really hate.
- Have a character in your story that wants something related to that love/hate of yours.
When you approach a story in this way whatever you love/hate, or “know,” will sync up nicely with the driving force of the character by the second or third draft. There are millions of examples of how this can work out. Regardless, I am convinced that this is a formula for those stories that are just special.
To find what you love/hate Bradbury suggests making lists of nouns. Sounds silly, but it’s a pretty powerful way of doing this. The third step in this system is starting off with steps 1 and 2 covered, and just freewriting until a story takes shape.
9. Get used to exploratory writing if you care about character
Hemingway said that “the first draft of anything is shit.” I’d amend that to “the first draft of anything is drawing a map.”
Exploratory writing is different than freewriting.
Exploratory Writing is done with the intent of eventually producing a final product, but with the conscious acceptance that most of it will totally suck, and being at total peace with that because you’re willing to find “Atlantis.”
I touched on exploratory writing in #7, but I use it here to illustrate that you might sit down for a day’s writing without much of a plan in mind and end up writing the best short story you’ve ever written. You might think that one character is your POV character and end up with another. You may simply be writing the backstory your character needs in order for you to make a story set at a different time in his life work.
The trick is being open to exploring. If you aren’t, you risk writing wooden characters.
10. You should cater to your favorite literary journals
This may seem against the grain for the “true artist” in you, but just relax and hear me out. When you find that handful of journals that suit your genre and stylistic aesthetics, see what type of characters and narrative structures the editors are publishing.
Then, whether in revision or at the beginning of drafting a new story you can cater your writing to those editors.
To a certain extent. Without detracting much of anything artistically.
You won’t get this advice elsewhere because it contrasts with the ideals of the artistic process, but it’s true. Being genuine to your own writing involves finding like-minded journals; the next step is making the editors happy so they’ll publish you.
11. Fiction Sense versus Real life Sense
Although this sounds obtuse, it’s painfully simple. Real life can be a messy shit show full of years of apathy, no conflict, senseless decisions, and no climactic moments.
Sorry, bro, no one wants to read that crap.
No matter what type of fiction, readers almost always want some element of escapism.
Fiction Sense means approaching your story and character arcs in a way that pleases a reader’s expectations, be it the traditional story structure or whatever a certain audience expects. So a clever character or situation, some sort of tension, a climactic moment, and all the questions answered at the end.
You’d be amazed how difficult it is for amateur writers to make it over this hurdle, believing that “but this is how it would happen in Real Life,” is valid.
12. What makes a short story “good” is the affect it has on the reader
A good note to end on is defining what makes a short story “good.” Honestly, it’s impossible. But from my experience it involves three things:
- Character Empathy
- Character Rememberability
- Character’s Epiphany Being Meaningful
I’m convinced this is what it takes to write a short story that matters. Notice that all three involve characterization.
If your readers can relate to the character emotionally and can remember either the name and/or character traits a week later, then you’re going to get that story published. Same goes for the character’s arc, or how they change, sometimes called the epiphany.
If the character’s epiphany is relateable, if it hits on some larger Truth the reader recognizes for the first time, about themselves and/or the world at large, then you’ve written a great short story.
Hope you enjoyed the second half of the 12 tricks to short story characterization
Comment below and let me know what you think. Now go finish your story.