Studies in Lines and
Character Development in Short Stories
By 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
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
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 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.
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
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?
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.
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
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.
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
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.