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Main Character Development
Main Character Development

A good novel tells us the truth about its hero, but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.

-- Flannery O'Connor

Fiction couldn't be what it is without characters. Although there are some exceptions, most short stories center on a main character. We call this person the hero or the heroine. You might also call him the protagonist.

Much of your work in writing your short story will relate to the main character. The transformation that takes place in your hero is the core of your piece; it is what will give the reader a feeling of satisfaction at the close. Why? Because if the reader has read your story to the end, then that probably means she cared about the main character. It's not easy to develop a main character that captures many readers, so let's spend this article discussing ways to do exactly that.

One of the joys of reading, in my opinion, is that you get to forget yourself for a while and be someone else. The hero or heroine of your story is the person the reader must become as the story progresses. They should care what happens to the main character, even if they wouldn't take her place. In Richard Bausch's story "The Man Who Knew Belle Starr," the protagonist, McRae, does something risky but forgivable -- he picks up a hitchhiker. Almost every reader can understand his motivation: He was feeling lonely on the road; he was a gentleman who wanted to help a lady; he didn't think that a skinny girl in a poncho could be dangerous. But because we can put ourselves in his shoes and his life is endangered, we're hooked to the end (even though he has a checkered past).

As your develop your own protagonist, think carefully about his actions. Will readers relate? If you are thinking about creating an anti-hero, one whose actions are against the norm, realize first that many readers will shun him unless you also provide him with some endearing characteristics that will allow readers to relate to him.

Owning Your Characters

When developing your characters, you will probably wind up liking them very much. I know some writers who display unhealthy attachments to their protagonists; a most famous example is the reclusive writer J.D. Salinger. Except for his most famous tome, The Catcher in the Rye, practically every other book and short story he published has one or more members of the Glass family (Franny, Zooey, and a couple of others) at center stage. (Since Salinger is still alive and writing -- but not publishing -- we'll hear the end to this tale in the news one day.)

There is no particular rule to follow when creating your main characters or any of the characters in your story. More than likely, you already know these people to some degree. Many times, writers create heroines who are similar to them or someone they know.

What this all boils down to is that when creating a main character, you might be required to expose certain aspects of your psyche to the audience. But -- somewhat ironically -- this situation is also one of the great gifts of fiction writing: With every sentence, you get to know yourself better.

The Eastern religions tell us that self-knowledge is the path to enlightenment. Isn't that better than money?

The Core of Character

When creating a character, it's most important to identify her motivations: What does she want? How does that desire drive the story? Answer those two questions and you will have a good start. From there, you must discern what characteristics are most important to the story, for one important rule of short story writing is that every word and every sentence should push the story to its conclusion. When you only have a few thousand words (8000 at the very most), there's no room for unnecessary information. For example, you might have an urge to write a few paragraphs about you're hero's love of dogs. But if dogs aren't part of the plot, then you might leave that out -- otherwise, the reader will wonder where dogs exist inside the story.

In an interview at Failbetter.com, Richard Bausch related how he views the process of character development: "I rely upon my imagination to get inside a character's whole body, really," he said. "The whole physical being and the whole history, even if I don't, in the end, put all of it in. At least that's what I'm striving for. I trust the subconscious to supply me with what I need in almost every single case, and that is why I am often making all of it up -- the rooms, the landscape, the places and the people, all of it."

Learn More About Your Protagonist

Some writing teachers promote a classic exercise for character development. What you do is fill out at sort of history on your character -- this helps you detach and discover new qualities about your protagonist. This type of exercise is that it can be time-consuming, but many people find this sort of thing very helpful. You might be one of them.

Telling the Story: Structure & Plot
Once upon a time, there was an emerging author who had problems with plotting. Everyone who read his work said his stories were boring. He was upset about his failures because -- more than anything -- he wanted to be a published fiction writer. One dark and stormy night, he was sitting at his computer, trying to work, and he had an "aha" moment: What if he wrote the end of the story first? By doing so, he'd have an advantage later when writing the beginning. He realized that his idea could go further -- he could write the story from various points in the main character's life. There was no need, he realized, to narrate the entire story in chronological order. And with that idea put into action, he wrote what would become his first published story.

In this article, we're focusing on plot, story structure, narrative -- whatever you choose to call the act of telling the story. Browse through the "Writer's Reference" section in any bookstore and you'll many volumes dedicated especially to these aspects of fiction writing (you might want to read one of them). That's because plot and structure can be an enormous challenge. Just like the fictional writer in our opening example, many people find that their stories fail to capture the reader's attentions. Or, the opposite is true: the story is overplotted to the point where the reader is unable to follow the action, or doesn't believe in the story enough to suspend reality and enter the writer's fictional world.

We've all seen movies that have problem plots. And, likely, we've read novels that didn't get going. When I go into a used bookstore, I look for the paperbacks that have cracks in the spine. This means the book was opened. If the spine is half-cracked, then I know the reader didn't finish. It's the books that have fully cracked spines that I pull from the shelf to examine further -- those are the ones that were read until the very last page. (Unfortunately, the technique doesn't work for short story anthologies.)

Perfect Plotting

The best way to learn how to plot your short stories is to read stories by successful writers. Once you have internalized the various approaches to plot, you'll have a better sense of what would work well in your own fiction.

I think the most important decision to make before you begin telling the story is the viewpoint: Will you have a first (I), second (you), or third person (he, she, it, we, they) narrator? Will the story be told in past tense or present tense? These decisions will affect your plot a great deal. A story told in first person is usually more immediate than a story told in third. With third person, you'll have more distance from the character, and will find it easier to move back and forth in time. Plus, if you need to move into another character's head, you can do so. In first person, you can still move back and forth in time, but often you'll feel the need to have the character explain why this is being done.

Annie Proulx's short story "Brokeback Mountain" is told in third person, past tense and -- for the most part -- presents the love story between Jack and Ennis in chronological order. But the beginning of the story is written in italics to indicate that it occurs much later than any of the other events. Italics let readers know that the narrative has shifted from one place in time to another or from one character to another. Be careful not to overuse this technique; if you find yourself relying on it too much, you might want to rethink your structure.

Another common technique is to have the main character receive or remember a letter, postcard or e-mail that explains something the reader needs to know. This technique is also put to work in "Brokeback Mountain." But, once again, you should use the "letter method" with caution. If you find as you're writing that many things need to be explained and you're having trouble working it in, you should consider the story as a whole: Would it help to bring in the viewpoint of another character? Can you find a creative way to present the needed information? Should you go back in time? And, most important, do you really need to explain everything?

Writing, and Punctuating, Dialogue
When we write dialogue, there is a specific way that we need to punctuate what is said. Many writers have trouble with this, it seems to be one of the first things we forget when we leave school.
This is simply a section that will brush up on those rules. If you'd like a more in-depth review, a great book that can help is Writing Dialogue, by Tom Chiarella
Back to our review:
To sett off quoted material, you'll use a comma. This sets the quoted bits off from the main body of the sentence, in sentences that contain quotes. If the main body of work precedes the quote, your comma will appear between the end of the main body and the beginning of the quote. Sound confusing? It's really not. Here's an example:
Michelle said, "Hand me that book."
The boy thought, "Why doesn't anyone understand what I'm trying to say?"
For those two examples, when you are setting the quoted material--what is said or thought, off from the speaker, the comma is outside the quotation marks. But if the main body follows the quote, the comma (or other punctuation) goes inside the quotation marks.
For example:
"I am so happy!" she screamed.
"I think you are going to win," Jim told Alexis.
The comma is there (or the other end punctuation) to show that this is still part of the same sentence. If it were not, then you would put a period to end the sentence.
For example:

"I think you are going to win." John then turned to Alexis and shook her hand.
Now, if the spoken words are broken up, here is how you would punctuate the sentence:
"Well," she said, "there goes the ball game."
The main body, above, comes between the first piece of what is said and the second. Note that your punctuation is inside the quotation marks on both sides.

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