If you are anything like me, the notion of writing a short story is nothing short of daunting—more daunting than writing any other type of prose, especially when it comes to character development. But fear not! We’ve got you covered with a few tips to help you break down character development into manageable chunks.
Why are short stories so hard to write?
Because space is at a premium when word count is low. Saying more with less is much more difficult than it might seem.
Take Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s idea that prose is “words in their best order” and that poetry is “the best words in the best order,” and run with it. Sure, he may be a little biased, but it’s helpful for me to think of short stories as sitting somewhere between prose and poetry. Short stories contain all the aspects of a prose narrative and all the precision of a poem.
If short stories are the best of both worlds, then writing them requires capturing the best of those worlds, and this prospect is understandably nerve-wracking.
But if you step out of the pressure cooker for a moment, you can begin to break it down. What do all—well, most—short stories have? Setting, plot, characters…you get the idea. Ok, now you can let your ideas percolate and worry about length later. There will be plenty of time to whittle away the excess.
Just one step at a time.
So today, let’s focus on character development with seven ways to tackle characters in your short stories.
1. Get to know your characters
I’m not going to sit here and act like there is an answer to the question of exactly how long a short story can be before it becomes just a regular ol’ story, but in the spirit of precision, it’s safe to say there won’t be time to detail the entirety of each character’s life. That probably isn’t something you want to do with a short story anyway, but just because the story is short doesn’t mean you can skimp on character development.
Take some time to get acquainted with your characters. Yes, they are a product of your imagination, but they will also need to take on lives of their own.
Ok, that might sound a little vague, but in essence, I’m talking about empathy.
Your characters don’t exist in a vacuum. They have a past (unless they’re Frankenstein’s monster or something), a current situation, and aspirations for the future. All of those things—or lack of them—are going to inform their actions in your story, but it isn’t realistic to try to flesh out every detail and to anticipate their every move beforehand.
Nobody writes your story into a corner! Except maybe you…if your character development is nonexistent.
You ultimately have the final say in what your characters say, think, and do in your story, but you don’t want to be a puppet master. You are more like a god that spins the top and records everything that follows.
This requires flexibility on your part and agency on the part of your characters. No matter how fictitious your characters may be, character development should involve putting yourself in their shoes when shaping the plot of your short story.
You can’t expect your readers to empathize with your characters if you do not know them inside and out. Treat your characters like living beings so that your readers can too.
2. Avoid unnecessary exposition
Show don’t tell. Sure, it’s a writing workshop cliché at this point, but that’s just because it’s an effective rule of thumb.
What do your characters look like? How do they behave throughout the story?
It’s important for your readers to get a sense of these things through your writing, but that doesn’t translate to listing each aspect of their appearance in a single paragraph and calling it a day.
What sounds better? She had blonde hair. vs. A gust of wind blew a mass of blonde hair in her face, causing her to trip on the uneven pavement and spill her coffee down the front of her brand-new blouse. Yes, that’s a fairly unpolished sentence, but it illustrates how the details of your characters’ appearances can be worked into something that also serves to drive your plot forward. This is especially important from a precision standpoint. (And no, that example wasn’t drawn from personal experience, so don’t even ask.)
The same goes for how your characters interpret each facet of your plot. She instantly regretted the decision to spend half her paycheck on a single article of clothing. vs. “Fudge, there goes half a paycheck,” she said under her breath, eyes rolling so far into her head that for a split second, she worried they might get stuck there. She tucked her hair behind her ear and blotted her shirt with the single napkin included in her five-dollar purchase of bean water with foamed milk, continuing to shuffle her feet as if she’d learned nothing. (Yes, that is censored version of this completely hypothetical scenario.) Basically, don’t tell your readers she was regretful. Show them.
Think about how each word of your story works to drive your plot forward. Nobody wants to read a laundry list of characteristics. You want to work in things like body language, stature, facial expressiveness, voice, gait, and distinguishing features (especially for nonhuman characters) without making it seem like you are providing descriptors for a police sketch. (Unless of course, the drawing of a composite sketch is part of your story.)
3. Create tension and dimension
Your characters don’t have to be 100% likable 100% of the time unless you are specifically developing a Glinda the Good Witch-type. (Did anyone else think she was a little smug or was that just me?)
Living beings are not one-dimensional. They aren’t even three-dimensional. They’re multi-dimensional.
Leaving room for ambiguity in terms of whether your characters are “good” or “bad” makes them relatable. I’m not going to condone a hurtful course of action by a supposedly “good” character. I’d say there are caveats to “good people do bad things” and vice versa, but I’ll leave you to determine what is gratuitous and what serves a purpose.
Putting extremes aside, characters shouldn’t be 100% good or bad all the time. That isn’t realistic.
But I’m not just talking about behavior. The ideas of tension and dimension can also be applied to interests, appearances, relationships, aspirations, etc.
Even if your characters are not realistic in the slightest, their characterizations can be, and this is important. Your readers need some semblance of a protagonist to root for and an antagonist to root against, but nothing is black-and-white. That would be…boring.
4. Don’t use lazy dialogue
Can you tell the difference between these two pieces of dialogue? “Great, just great,” she said sarcastically. vs. “Great, just great!” She said genuinely.
Trick question! They’re both bad.
When considering whether your dialogue achieves what you set out to do, put yourself in your readers’ shoes. If your mind was entirely wiped of your intentions for the dialogue, would you still understand its purpose? Well, as the old adage goes, “if you have to ask…,” you should either remove it or contextualize it more thoroughly.
To test this out, remove all the words following your dialogue that aren’t “he said,” “she said,” or “they said.” Does it still make sense? Does it still come across how you intended?
If the answer is yes, then anything other than “[this person or pronoun] said” following your dialogue is redundant.
If the answer is no, then your dialogue is likely lacking in context, forced, or doing little to familiarize readers with your characters.
Continuing with the initial example, there should be enough set-up to make the tone of, “great, just great,” obvious, and that tone will then show how a character reacts to a specific situation. This makes your character more familiar and relatable without needing any additional exposition or redundancy.
This brings me to my next point.
5. Don’t try to fill in all the gaps
To borrow the lingo of Linguistics, how you write and write about your characters should be descriptive, not prescriptive.
Don’t try to tell your readers exactly how they should interpret or how they should feel about your characters. Otherwise, you risk sounding like you are giving a lecture on your story.
Your readers probably won’t enjoy a story that analyzes itself as they read it. This is similar to avoiding unnecessary exposition, but it takes it a step further. You want to work in descriptions of your characters appearances and behaviors organically. On top of that, you want to avoid explaining the significance of those details to your readers.
For example’s sake, however, let’s just use a cut-and-dried description. Instead of she did/had [x], which showed [y], stop at she did/had [x]. Don’t insult your readers’ intelligence.
It should be clear why you chose to include a certain descriptor through its context. If you find yourself wanting to make an argument within your story that defends the inclusion of a detail or event, this should instead signal to you that you either need to add to or rework your context.
Use your narrative for characterization, and then trust your readers to grasp the importance of each detail of this characterization through it. You want your readers to be able to fill in enough blanks with their own experiences to better relate to your characters.
It may be difficult to tuck away your knowledge and interpretation of your characters to see if you have done this, so I recommend having a close friend or family member read your story to test out how relatable they are.
6. Use relationships to expand on your characters’ backgrounds
How your characters relate to themselves and to others reveals a lot about their lives outside of your story.
To build on my last point, you can use relationships as a way of descriptively detailing your characters. For instance, how a character handles conflict with another character is going to reveal not only aspects of her personality but also of her background.
This circles back around to the importance of purposeful and natural dialogue, but it also adds a new dimension to it. Conversations take the individual pieces of dialogue and string them together to create devices that 1) drive the plot forward and 2) reveal something about your characters.
A conversation in a story should get readers from Point A to Point B, especially in a short story. There isn’t time for small talk.
Instead of, “how was your day?” you want, “how did your meeting go?” Sure, those are boring pieces of dialogue in themselves, but the former is going to result in a potentially directionless conversation. The latter tells the reader about an event in the character’s past, how that event has affected his current state of mind, and potentially what that event means for his future.
How he responds to this type of question is going to reveal the type of relationship the two characters have and his attitude toward its context.
Taken together, the goal is to tell the reader something about your characters through each interaction they have with one another. Conversation is an effective way to achieve this without invoking the dreaded laundry list of exposition.
7. Show change – Dare I say, “Character Development” – no matter how short your story Is
Ultimately, you are going to take at least one of your characters through the framework of a plot:
This is going to result in change, for better or worse. If your protagonist is unaffected by the plot of your story, then what was the point?
Let’s say the climax of a story is the death of a loved one. (Sorry.) This could result in cynicism, optimism, isolationism, escapism, etc. The change will loosely be either an intensification of the set-up or a turn-around from it. Again, the ending does not need to be happy, but it can be.
Character development isn’t just about developing a character outside of your story and bringing that characterization into the story. It’s also about developing your character from within the story through its events. Even if the change is “no change” (e.g., something akin to apathy), there has to be a set of actions that lead to that.
Anything animate has to be dynamic, and this goes for your characters. There is no better way to breathe life into them and make them relatable to your readers than clearly illustrating change.
So there you have it! Hopefully, these tips help make character development in short stories less daunting and encourage you to incorporate more short stories into your everyday writing practice.
Good luck, and happy self-publishing!