The centre of interest in almost all short stories is the dynamic interaction between characters; what people do and say to each other, how they affect and influence each other, and the effects of their actions on each other. This is what the whole business is really about, and we should keep our interacting characters in the spotlight all the time. Other elements, such as descriptive passages are embellishments. We do not have time to stop and ‘look at the scenery', so to speak, unless it is important to the plot that the central character stops and looks at the scenery.
A character is a representation of a person, and the best character portrayals, like the best portraits, are those that prompt the reader to see the whole person in his imagination.
The way to do this is not to ply the reader with all the details you can think of with the intention of transferring the image you have in your mind to his, but to show one or two salient points and let the reader's imagination do the rest.
There is never any need to describe a character just for the sake of it. Like everything else in the story characterisation is only relevant insofar as it contributes to the plot, and should be done through action. Let the characters reveal themselves as they act and speak, just as people reveal themselves in life, and only mention details of their physical appearance when it is pertinent to the story that the central character is noticing that particular feature at that particular time.
Your initial conception of the story will include a rough idea of the characters needed and the role they are to play, and they should develop as you work on the story as a whole. Some writers talk of characters coming alive and taking over the story, and this is fine as long as what they do strengthens your original theme or introduces a better one. But generally speaking in a short story characters are glimpsed rather than seen in the round, and if you find the characters growing out of proportion you might well be thinking of a novel.
It is inevitable that characters are going to be based to some extent on ourselves, people we know, or people have met, and we can combine features of several people to create a unique composite. In fact we can rely on our subconscious to do this for us. The important thing is that our characters should be real people for us, and not just names attached to a set of attitudes. If a character is real for us then there is a good chance he will be real for the reader too.
The article on point of view shows that the whole story is seen through a character - the central character. We therefore need a dual approach to character in a short story, we need to be the central character, and to see the others from the outside, as he/she would see them. In effect we need to adopt the personality of the central character while writing the story in much the same way an actor adopts the personality of the character he is playing on stage. We need to think as the character would think, feel what he would feel, and perceive what he would perceive. We can, of course, make the central character as similar or dissimilar to our real selves as we like.
It is a good idea to make your characters’ names sound and look completely different from one another. If a story has characters named, for example, John, Jean, Jan, and Jenny a reader can lose track of which character is which. Select names which sound very different, and look different on the page. If you are stuck for names it can be helpful to browse through ‘name your baby’ books or web sites about names.
Copyright: Ian Mackean
Ian Mackean runs the sites http://www.literature-study-online.com, where his site on Short Story Writing can be found, and http://www.booksmadeintomovies.com. He was a short story and novel writing tutor for many years, and had many of his own stories published in literary magazines. He is the editor of The Essentials of Literature in English post-1914, ISBN 0340882689, which was published by Hodder Arnold in 2005. When not writing about literature or short story writing he is a keen amateur photographer, and has made a site of his photography at http://www.photo-zen.com