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How to Develop Great Characters in Your Short Story
 
 
How to Develop Great Characters in Your Short Story
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Just as the first paragraph will grab your readers' attention and compel them to read the rest of the story, how well you develop your characters will influence how well the story is told and how intriguing it is. More often than not, your characters will tell the story for you. Their personalities, emotions, actions, and reactions will develop the plot, create the tension, and add life to your story.

It's important that every character you create is three-dimensional. We've discussed this before, and what we mean by it is that all of your characters must be life-like. They must be more than just a few lines of dialogue or a paragraph that you take to explain them. Nobody could completely explain you with a few lines. It would take meeting you and observing you to get to know who you are as a person. The same holds true of the characters you create.

However, in order to create a three-dimensional, life-like, multi-faceted character, you as the writer must know each of your characters rather intimately. They must become your best friends, so to speak. You have to know everything about them even if you don't use most of those details in your story. When you know everything about them, it then becomes easy to carry their personality, quirks, mannerisms, etc. into the story. It also makes it easy to stay consistent. There's nothing more unbelievable about a character than for them to have brown eyes and dark hair in the beginning of the story and, by the end of the story, turn into a blue-eyed blonde-haired person. The best writers in the world have found themselves making a mistake like this, so don't think it could never happen to you or your characters.

Below is a list of details that you should know about each of your characters. Depending on the character you create, you might want to add more to this list.

  • Name
  • Age
  • Job
  • Ethnicity
  • Appearance
  • Residence
  • Pets
  • Religion
  • Hobbies
  • Single or married
  • Children
  • Sleep patterns

  • Temperament
  • Favorite color
  • Friends
  • Favorite foods
  • Drinking patterns
  • Phobias
  • Faults
  • Things they had
  • Secrets
  • Memories
  • Illnesses
  • Nervous gestures

These details are necessary for you to get to know your character, but they are not as important as the four main things that your reader will always need to know. These are the aspects of your characters that must be in every story you write, for every character you create.

  1. Appearance. This gives your reader a visual of the character.
  2. Action. Shows what kind of person your character is by showing their actions, rather than simply telling what kind of person he/she is.
  3. Speech. Develop the character as a person, as an individual.
  4. Thought. Let your readers into your character's mind to show them the character's thoughts, fears, hopes, dreams, etc.

What do we, as the writers, know about Mrs. Carter? We'll start out by writing what we know. Keep in mind, not all of this may factor into the story, but we want to know as much as possible. Some of the things we teach ourselves about her may factor into the character we create.

Her first name is Meredith. She loves her husband, and her marriage is very important to her. She'd do anything to save it because she feels guilty that she can't give her husband a child. A car accident fifteen years ago made that virtually impossible. Meredith had to have a partial hysterectomy that took one of her ovaries and damaged the other. She's an only child. She's a lawyer, but the hours were part of the troubles in her marriage, so she's very selective as to what cases she takes. She has chocolate brown hair, brown eyes she's extremely slender, and is five feet four inches tall. Meredith loves to cook, although she isn't very good at it. Her favorite food is anything Italian, especially homemade ravioli. She grew up in Maine and moved to Arizona with Evan when they got married. She loves classical rock music; she hates liars. Meredith sings in the shower and loves to pamper the people around her. She's loyal to those she loves. She can be very easy going until pushed into a proverbial corner. She has a bad temper when angry. Her favorite things are her husband, her best friend Tamara, and her three cats. She met Tamara during college in a boxing class. People think of her as frail because she's so petite and avoids conflict with others, but she thinks most conflicts are trivial and not worth the time. She chews her nails when she's nervous and bites her bottom lip when she's mad.

These are all details that may or may not go into the story, but they are things that help you get to know your character. It will insure consistency, depth, and make your character seem more life-like and real.
Creating Personality Traits

All the information you create about your character to enable you to get to know them better will pull together to create personality traits. Maybe your character likes to chomp on chewing gum when she's nervous and rescues injured and sick dogs, but the story is about your character finding love. You can portray the character as living with six dogs. Perhaps she buys a pack of gum every time she sees her romantic interest. Maybe her dogs love her romantic interest, and this upsets her because she'd rather find a reason to stay away from him.

Trying to create personality traits out of the blue will have you assigning traits to your character based on the plot. Not only will this make for a flat, dull character, it will also be a generic, clichéd story. Take for example a story about a murder. You don't bother creating any details about the murderer and, throughout the story, you only portray him as a hateful, cruel, psychopath. That's the clichéd killer. Every real life killer loves something as much as he may hate everything else. Every real life killer has personality traits that aren't just about killing. You have to include those to make him believable. Maybe he watches cartoons and drops a DVD of Tom and Jerry at the scene. Perhaps he loves his cats and tells his victim about them. Your characters have to be three-dimensional and not just a vehicle that you use to tell the story. The murderer simply can't be a monster if he's going to be one of the characters in the story. People have layers; your characters must have them too.
Warning on Including Too Much Detail

Just as you don't want flat, lifeless characters, you also don't want to reveal too much information to your reader. Maybe you think a detail or aspect about your character is interesting, but if your reader doesn't need to know it to understand the story, don't tell it. Let's use the murderer as an example. We probably wouldn't need to know that his favorite music growing up was Madonna. Unless he sang her song in the story or it was a factor in his present life, it would be useless information.

Remember: give details about your character that develop them as a three-dimensional being in relation to your story. Give them a life and personality traits. Bring them to life for your readers. Don't try to educate your readers on the character's entire life history.
Choosing a Point of View and Tense
The point of view refers to the narration of the story as it is told by either the first, second, or third person. As the writer, you will need to decide what information you need to reveal to your readers, and how you want to reveal that information. The narrator of your story can be directly involved in the story and its action, or the narrator can have an objective point of view.

If you do enough research online, you will uncover over twenty points of view that can be used when writing fiction. Needless to say, that can get complicated and confusing. The point of view is very important in completely telling the story, so for this , we're going to cover only the three main points of view: first, second, and third.

First Person

First person simply uses the term "I." It's told by either the main character (the protagonist) or a secondary character. The first person point of view is often the easiest to write in, so it's best for newer writers.

Example:

I saw him steal the loaf of bread from the store shelf. Nobody else was looking, and I was almost embarrassed to see it myself. The kid was so skinny that his legs looked like toothpicks supporting a skeletal frame. His eyes were sunk in, and dark black surrounded them like halos. I dug inside my purse and pulled out a dollar. He smiled when I handed it to him. I hoped he'd use it for something he needed if he didn't ever pay for the bread hidden in his dirty satchel.

The first person brings together the narrator and the reader by giving the reader the perception and thoughts of the narrator. However, it is easy to use first person to tell a story and summarize the action instead of showing the action and providing details.

Second Person

When using the second person point of view, the story is directly told to you – with you being part of the action.

Example: You are going to laugh until your sides hurt when I tell you what I did.

The second person point of view is also referred to as interactive fiction since it involves the reader in the action and makes it as if it is happening to them. If you choose to write in this point of view, it's important that you remember details and to show the story as it unfolds so you don't omit clarity for the reader.

Third Person

The third person point of view tells what he, she, and it does. The majority of stories are written using some form of the third person point of view.


Example: He wasn't paying attention to where he was going and tripped over the curb.

The narrator's perspective can be limited in third person. This means that the narrator tells the story from just one character's viewpoint. However, it can also be omniscient, and the narrator knows everything about all the characters. If you use third person limited make sure that you can stay consistent with it throughout the story. It can be too easy to shift to omniscient to reveal something that is important. Once you start with a point of view, it's the point of view that you need to use throughout the story.

Tense

The one mistake all new writers make is switching tenses within a story. It's easy to do. In fact, it's even easier not to notice you're doing it if you don't learn to recognize the different tenses and the rules for each.

The tenses are:

  • Present simple
  • Present perfect
  • Past simple
  • Past perfect
  • Future simple
  • Future perfect

When writing fiction, only write in the simple tenses. The perfect tenses use two verbs: a form of the verb 'to have' (depending on tense) and an action verb. Using the perfect tense creates a passive voice in your story. The passive voice means that you are telling what is happening, not showing it. In fiction, you always want to show the action instead of telling about it. Your readers don't want to be told. They want to be shown; they want to be drawn into the action and into your story.

Present Simple Tense

This is self explanatory. Everything you write about is happening as you write it.

Example: I am going to the store.

A lot of modern stories are written in present tense. That said, new writers beware! A story correctly written in present tense is interesting and engaging because everything is happening in front of the reader's eyes. But it presents complications to the writer. Once you start writing in present tense, you must keep in present tense. This means that everything that you write about must be happening at that moment. One of the most common mistakes with present tense is illustrated below.

"I am going to the store," Allison tells Tony.

"Okay, will you grab some milk?"

"Sure. Is there anything else you want?"

"Nope, just the milk," Tony replies.

"Are you sure?" She put her hand on her hip and looked at him.

Look at the last paragraph. Notice how the writer switched to past tense with the verbs 'put' and 'look'.

The last paragraph should read like this:

"Are you sure?" She puts her hand on her hip and looks at him.

If you dare to write in the present tense, then make sure you keep it there!

Past Simple Tense

Past tense is the most commonly used tense in fiction. You probably automatically write in the past tense without even thinking about it.

Example: She looked in the mirror and combed her fingers through her hair.

Past tense is used for actions that are completed in the past. In fiction, it is commonly used to tell something that has happened or is happening. Below is an example of using past tense to describe something that is happening.

Example:

The car jumped the curb. People screamed as they jumped out of the way. Madeline watched as her heart sunk to her stomach. She froze in place. She was far enough away to be out of danger, but not so close she couldn't run to make sure everyone was okay. Yet, her feet wouldn't move. That was Jenny's car.

Future Simple Tense

No story was ever completely written in the future tense. You can't tell a story that hasn't happened yet. However, you can use it in dialogue, no matter what tense the story is in.

Example: "I will go to the store later."

Avoid The Perfect Tenses

As was stated earlier, avoid using the perfect tenses when writing short stories or any work of fiction. Remember, you want to show the action that's taking place. You can do that with the past simple or present simple tense. With the perfect tenses, however, you end up telling about the action rather than showing it because the perfect tenses require a form of the verb "have" and another verb. Look at in the examples below.

Present simple tense:

She walks to the store alone.

Present perfect tense:

She has gone to the store alone.

Both tenses are telling that the girl is going to the store in this moment. She is going right as you read the sentence. Nevertheless, the sentence written in the present simple tense shows that she is going to the store alone. The present perfect tense TELLS she has gone alone. Remember, you have to show what is going on, and not tell what is going on. Avoid using the perfect tenses whenever you can.

Tip

Good fiction shows the action and the story as it unfolds; it does not simply tell about it. To help you better show the action and the story, always choose the simple tenses for your short stories.

 
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