Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

 

Studies in Lines and Shadows:
Character Development in Short Stories

By Carter Nipper
2005,
Carter Nipper


Character development in novels is like painting a portrait.  You have a large canvas upon which you can use the full palette of colors and the full range of tools to create a detailed, lifelike image of a person, including his background.  In short stories, however, you have only a sketch pad.  You don't have the time or space to create much detail or depth, and virtually the only tool available to you is a charcoal stick.

Short stories are focused, words and ideas sharpened to a fine point.  In a limited number of words, you, the writer, must create an entire world, people it with the appropriate characters, and still have room for a plot.  Creating believable characters your readers can identify with can be difficult under these conditions.  It certainly can be done, though, so don't despair.  You just have to learn to trust your readers.

The human mind is a strange and wonderful thing.  It is willing to be duped and deceived by a writer in order to be entertained and enlightened.  In the majority of cases, your readers want your story to succeed, and they are willing to stretch themselves a little in order to allow that to happen.  By using the power of suggestion, you can provide your readers with a framework of a character containing the elements and information essential to the story and they will use their imaginations to fill in the blanks.  The hard part for you is deciding how much is enough.

While each writer and each story is unique, there are some ideas and techniques that will be useful to you at least most of the time.  Following are some ways you can inspire your readers to help create your characters and bring them to life.

Description

Description of a character and his environment can go a long way toward filling out that character in the reader's mind.  Note, however, that this does not necessarily mean a physical description of the character, unless that description contributes to the story in some way.  In writing short stories, conciseness is essential.  Does it really matter if the character has brown hair or blonde?  Blue eyes?  What is the significance for the story?

Definitely beware of the rookie mistake of having the character look at himself in a mirror.  There are times when this is necessary, such as when the character is exceedingly vain or has some physical characteristic that makes him self-conscious.  Other than these limited uses, though, this device marks a writer instantly as a beginner.

Consider this passage:

Scott fingered the groove on his left ring finger.  The gold band that usually filled that groove rested in his pocket.  Though he couldn't feel it, he knew it was there.  It burned in his mind, a nagging, guilty presence.  It was the first time in ten years of marriage that the ring had been off his finger.  He wondered, not for the first time, why he was sitting in this bar in a strange city with his wedding ring in his pocket.

This passage serves a dual role in the story.  It sets up a conflict: this character is apparently trolling for womanly companionship but is also unsure and guilty about it.  At the same time, the passage tells us that the character is married and has been for ten years.  He also feels guilty about what he is doing.  The reasons for his guilt are not explained in this brief passage, but some possibilities will immediately occur to the reader.  Maybe he has a conscience.  Maybe he loves his wife but feels that sex with a stranger is something he has to do, for whatever reason.  This brief paragraph sets up conflicting feelings in the reader about this character.  That raises the reader's interest level, which is always good.

Description of a character's surroundings can also contribute to his development.  Consider:

Her hairbrush still lay on the bathroom vanity.  A single red hair twined about the bristles.  Her toothbrush still stood in its holder, a lonely sentinel hopelessly watching for the return of its mistress.  He reached toward the toothbrush, standing so tall and straight, but he could never bring himself to touch it, much less throw it away.

These four sentences tell an entire story.  The character misses a woman who is now gone from his life.  Who was she?  Wife?  Lover?  Mother?  Where did she go?  Did she leave him for another man?  Did she die?  Enquiring minds want to know.  Above all, this brief passage says that this character has a real problem letting go of whoever she was.  His feelings for her are apparently very deep and lasting.

When using description in this way, remember that small details tell a lot.  If a character's apartment is full of pizza boxes and beer cans, that tells us a lot about him.  A Bloomingdale's shopping bag on the counter says something very different from a Wal-Mart bag in the same place.

Backstory

We have all heard the warnings about info-dumping and flashbacks.  So how do you tell a character's backstory, his history?  The shadows cast by a character's past are a powerful influence on him in the present.  "The child is father to the man," as Wordsworth said.

A long flashback detailing a childhood filled with physical abuse can interrupt the flow of the story and cause a reader to lose interest.  A sudden memory of a father's angry face and the pain of the resulting cracked rib can have an immediate and compelling impact on the reader.

When I walked into the church for my daughter's wedding, I walked back in time.  The last time I had been to church, Mary's coffin had dominated the front of the sanctuary.  The smells of fresh flowers and old varnish were the same.  Though my wife was ten years in the ground, her presence in that room smothered me, her shadow filled my mind with darkness.  The old anger and bitterness flared up again.  I had hoped to get through this day without them.

This man's memories evoke our own.  The shadows that lie on his mind give him more depth in our minds.  Our own memories provide the sights, sounds and smells to bring the scene to life and allow the shadows to take form.

Dialogue and Thoughts

What a person says and how they say it reveals a lot about them.  Take the following conversation, for example:

Bonnie: Where are you going?

Clyde: Out.

Bonnie: That didn't answer my question.

Clyde: What are you, my wife?  Lay off the questions, all right?

Bonnie: I don't know why you can't answer a simple question.  What are you hiding?

Clyde: Don't push me, Bonnie.  I made you; I can break you.

Bonnie: Get over yourself, Clyde.  You might have helped get me some gigs early on, but it's my voice and my looks that made my career.

Clyde: Don't kid yourself, chickie.  There's hundreds of birds just like you out there drooling on themselves for the chance to jump into my bed and be a star.  Without me, you'll be back slinging hash in a month.

Clyde's not a very nice person, is he?  He seems to be some kind of promoter or manager.  He also doesn't have a very high opinion of his client or her peers.

How about this one:

"Don't make the mistake of thinking I'm just another dumb blonde, Billy-boy.  I know I'm nothing but your arm-candy trophy wife that makes you look good, but you'd better understand some things.  I know about the other women.  I also know about those two guys you have stashed in the closet.  I'm not staying with you 'cause I love you, in case you hadn't noticed.  I've got a good thing going here, and I'm not going to let you mess it up.  You try anything stupid, like filing for divorce, and I'll not only take everything you have, I'll make sure you never have anything ever again."

She's not very nice, either, is she?

Notice in these short snippets what is not being said.  The little bit of information given is only a trigger for the reader's imagination.  Social conventions and shared images make up the majority of the knowledge about the people involved.  The reader's imagination then takes over and colors in between the lines.

Notice also that both of these bits of dialogue are advancing the story, showing conflict and action.  Since you have so few words to work with in a short story, each word must carry its own weight, sometimes doing double or triple duty.

Behavior

We all know how much we can tell about a person from their behavior.  The way they walk, their gestures, their body language all speak volumes.  Someone who jingles the coins in his pocket or twists a strand of hair constantly shows nervousness or anxiety.  Licking lips or drying hands on clothes also show nervousness, maybe even fear.

Sam yanked the wheel, forcing his Jag to the right into a space almost big enough for it.  The scream of tires on pavement and the blare of a horn behind him brought a small smile to his lips.  When the traffic in front of him stopped and the traffic to his left started moving again, he repeated the maneuver to the left.  The rest of the drones could sit and wait.  He had places to go and people to see.

Sam is impatient and arrogant.  He is the guy the rest of us despise.  In my mind, I know his Jaguar is red, probably a convertible.  He wears a Rolex and a diamond tie-pin.  He demands instead of asking, and probably sexually harasses his female co-workers.

What does your character do that reveals his inner feelings?  Maybe he keeps his eyes moving when he's talking to someone.  Maybe his hand trembles enough to slosh hot coffee into his lap.  If he yawns and stretches, he's sleepy; if he's out of breath and leaning on something, he might be tired from some physical exertion, or he may have a health problem.

When writing a short story, the writer must always keep in mind the dictum to "show, don't tell."  Show your readers what your characters say, what they do, where they live.  Find the details that trigger their imaginations.  Have faith in your audience.  They know these people, too.  You just have to remind them.  Draw the lines, show the shadows, let your readers bring your characters to life.