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Choosing an Outfit for a Skeleton

Five Strategies for Making Characters Come to Life

When I’m critiquing short fiction, especially flash fiction, a feedback comment I often write is whether there are opportunities to uncover a little more of what makes the main character (or characters) unique.

In all fiction, characters sit somewhere on the scale between ‘flat’ and ‘round’. It was E.M. Forster who coined these terms in his book Aspects of the Novel. He suggests, “Flat characters can be thought of as undeveloped, or sketched, or comprising one or just a few characteristics. Round, or rounded, characters are those developed in depth.”

Both types of character serve a purpose. If a waiter brings a main character a cup of tea and that’s their only appearance in the story then we almost certainly don’t need to know where they went to school or what is their favourite species of shark. On the other hand, I would suggest we need to know a little more about the main character. For me, when a main character comes across as generic rather than a fully formed individual, it can be a barrier to feeling emotionally involved with their story.

But the problem (as with everything in short fiction) is how we achieve this fullness of character when word count is limited. When there are only five hundred or a thousand words to play with, it’s not exactly easy to conjure the essence of a character’s life. In stories that do this really well, it is often down to the writer having carefully picked out one or two key details that suggest who a character is and give the reader the building blocks to form a fuller image in their mind. Below, I’ve looked at five possible strategies for achieving this.

1. Base a Character Around a “Type”

A rule that's often wheeled out is that we should steer clear of stereotypes when creating characters. This is a good rule. At their best, stereotypes usually come across as cliché. At their worst, they are downright offensive. However, there is a difference in my mind between a stereotype (a large group all tarred with the same, often wide-of-the-mark brush) and a type (a smaller, more specific group where there might be some grain of truth in the observation).

In his article in Short Circuit entitled “Character, Characterisation, Dialogue and Language”, Tobias Hill advocates using ‘types’ as the basis for a character because “there is an immediate recognition in the mind of the reader, tried and tested characteristics for the reader to latch onto fast, giving them a sense of character” onto which you can hang those details that make the character unique.

In The Nicest of the Popular Girls (L Mari Harris | Flash Frog), the titular character starts off as being a ‘type’. She is a popular girl. I, as a reader, form an image in my mind based on that type but then this starts to shift with the specific details that are applied to the girls as a group (how they “exhale in unison”, how they rush over “in a cloud of their mothers’ perfume”) and then the specific detail of her “three-rotation back flip” and the body language detail of “the thumpthump of her heart in her throat” brings her fully to life.

2. Give the Character an Object that Acts as a Symbol for Who They Are

This is another short-cut solution that I think can work really well. In our modern world, we are often defined by our possessions whether we like it or not. The clothes we wear, the brand of phone we have and the car we drive, all say something about who we are as a person. In All You Need to Know (David Cotrone | Monkey Bicycle), we have a woman defined by her “rain boots”, described as “yellow” and “bigger than any anyone had ever seen”. She seems to come to life through her relationship with these boots and the sense of her personality shifts when she takes them off. Both the story and the character grow from the boots.

Other things that define us as individuals might be the food we eat or the TV shows we watch or our favourite animal or the topic we would choose as our specialist subject if we found ourselves on Mastermind. These might not be objects as such but I think they can all be the cornerstones of a character – and perhaps that is the key, finding that one detail that is at the heart of how this character acts and how they see the world.

3. Pick out a Tic or a Habit

Perhaps it is an action that defines a character rather than an object? In Sweetie (J.V. Skuldt | Smokelong Quarterly), I love that opening line “Sweetie vacuums at 4 a.m. because she’s up and she’s not going back to sleep and the carpet cost a fortune and you’ve got to keep it clean to make it last.” Straightaway, I have such a clear idea of who Sweetie is. Everything that is added later in the story seems to build off that one action of vacuuming at 4 a.m. I feel as though if I’d been asked the questions, “Have her kids flown the coop”, “Does this character cut her own hair?”, I would have been able to answer a definitive yes to both of them based on that opening sentence.

I also think this story highlights the power of a name to define character. Without going into nominative determination or calling our characters ‘Merry Doesgood’ or ‘Hubert Bogsnot’, names can conjure an essence of character in the same way as the types mentioned above. Here, “Sweetie” seems to underline the vulnerability of this character and I love how the name is explained in the second half of the piece.

4. Use Tone of Voice

I dedicate a whole topic of my Glorious Words course to looking at tone of voice and I think it is a really underused tool in conjuring a sense of character. The words we use and the way we put them together say so much about us. Where are we from? What is the level of our education? Do we swear? Are we pretentious? Are we down-to-earth? Are we a dreamer? The language we use is as unique to us as a fingerprint and if, as writers, we can get the tone of voice just right, it can do so much of the heavy-lifting in bringing a character to life.

In Malachy (Niamh MacCabe | Fictive Dream), I feel like I learn everything I need to know about the narrator from the words they use – a sense of where they are from (“Mammy”), a sense of age (the way they describe their relatives “speaking small and quiet”), their personality (through the humour of “Excuse me who is this please calling the residence at this hour”) etc.

5. Base a Character around a Defining Moment

At the end of the day, we are all of us an accumulation of experiences. Every moment we have lived through defines who we are in the present. Some of us have key moments in our past that have cast more of a shadow over our lives than others, and I think there can be a real power in harnessing one of these to suggest who a character is.

A story which does this fantastically well is Delusions of Grandeur (Laura Todd Carns | Cheap Pop). I love how the initial scene of Miranda as a six-year-old magically healing a sparrow’s broken wing has such an impact on the rest of her life, how this memory starts to be questioned in the final scene, how there is a tension between the person she has always been and the person she might become if her belief wavers.

Final thoughts

Hopefully, there are a few ideas to chew over in all of that. Short fiction is often described as a sketch as opposed to the large-scale oil painting that we get in a novel, but I think there can be enough detail in that ‘sketch’ to allow a reader to close their eyes and fill in everything else. The trick, for me, is identifying the cornerstones that make a character who they are then finding the most economical way of weaving that detail onto the page.


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