Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Writing Short Story Characters with Purpose

The saga of the MFA Thesis continues with Character Development.

The next step: developing my characters to reveal genuine motivations in the tight form of the short story.  And this can be challenging.  In order to be interesting and compelling, characters in fiction must have something at stake in the outcome of the story.

Previously, I wrote about how my first thesis draft wasn't suitable for the thesis because it had not been workshopped in the MFA program (see Knowing Your Audience: Follow Publishing Guidelines).  Fixing that issue was relatively simple - I simply had to choose stories which met the needs of the program, and then further edit them to meet the quality standards for a graduate thesis.  Fixing this was neither easy nor quick, but it was straightforward.  And with a little more careful communication and attention to detail, I could have avoided the issue entirely.

The new challenge is not so simple.  As my second thesis reader pointed out, I have characters who may be interesting, but in their current form might only be whiners or malingerers.  One character in particular shows neither fear nor desire - in response to an overwhelming home life, she simply does nothing.  It's unclear whether she's suffering or if, instead, she's chronically depressed.  Either way, we need to know.  More importantly, we need to know why we should care.

The aim now is to take these stories and add in the "punch" that keeps readers rooting for the characters.  And although I have some straightforward tips one what to look for in such characters, understand that these are not easy solutions.  These represent writing habits that many of us learn slowly - and painfully - over years of writing.  If you have not given much thought to characterization in the past, then I urge you to view these tips less as a "how-to" and more as a "what to look for down the road."

Give Your Main Character a Real Goal

Few things in life are more telling than goals.  Have you ever sat down and talked with someone who literally had no aspirations in life?  You know the type, the guy who just sits there on the steps in front of some shack, smoking, maybe drinking a beer, too bored with the world to even talk with you?  Or maybe the gal at the lunch table with the nice-but-bland clothes and some earrings?  The one who doesn't know that space shuttles/global warming/international banking could seriously effect the world?  Or, worse, just keeps eating her soup as you explain that your dog just died.  "I read something about the space shuttle program being canceled," she replies.

What stands out about such individuals is a lack of investment in the real world.  And note that I've left gossips off the list - people who share the mishaps of others tend to have some serious social aims going on.  And this is important - an inveterate drunk who shares the story of his friend who "can't hold his liquor" getting in a car accident is normally looking for some kind of validation, some kind of proof that he's in the right because he can hold his liquor.  And never mind that he's an alcoholic - this can play into who he is.  If he likes drinking, or if he sees no better life than the one parked on a bar stool with a couple empties and a fresh bud on the way, then we need to see that.  We need to know that he wants something.

In a short story, we have very few pages to reveal a fully-fleshed out character.  And one of the best ways to flesh out a character's motivation is to reveal his or her interactions with the supporting cast.  But these interactions must be written with a purpose in mind for the main character.  Consider Iago from Shakespeare's Othello, for example.  He tells a different story to each character he interacts with, and each story he tells reveals another side of his twisted desires.  And most importantly, he is actively manipulating each character he knows.  He asserts himself socially based on his desires for fame, fortune, and revenge.  And by doing so, he reveals these dark motives to the reader long before the other characters catch on to his act.


Ensure Your Protagonist has a Stake in the Outcome

This may seem like a reiteration of giving the character a real goal, but there's a subtle difference.  Everyone, for example, has goals.  And some of these goals are unrealistic or outright impossible.  I would like to see the moon, for example - it seems unlikely that I'll ever leaver the comfortable blanket of Earth's atmosphere, let alone travel to another lump of rock entirely.  If I wrote a story about this desire, we would see no real stake in the story.  Since we know the trip to the moon won't happen, then there's no reason for us to care what happens.  No matter how sad or depressed the frustrated protagonist may become, we can't sympathize.

But let's say we bring this conflict closer to home.  What if the character wanted to reach the moon because prize money was involved?  Better still, what if he needed that prize money to start a rocketry business from which he could support his family?  Then this trip to the moon takes on a new importance.  This isn't about the purity of logic or science - it's about a man taking care of business.  And the reader will relate to that.

Elevate the Risks to Counter the Goals and the Stakes

Now, to really push things forward, elevate the risks.  That space traveler going to the Moon?  Let us see the terrors of vacuum.  Better still, hint at what the wife would do if he waste's their life savings on a rocket that never does make it to the moon.  Let us see the dangers that these protagonists will face, and then reveal how they overcome these dangers.

That's all for now.  Let me me thank you for reading.  If you'd like more information, please leave me a comment below.

Happy Writing!

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