5 ways to improve characterisation in your short stories
When it comes to creating compelling characters, short stories can be the most difficult medium. How do you make sure your protagonist zings off the page in as little as 1,000 words?
Looking back on my womag-writing career, I think improving characterisation was the number one change that clinched my success. When I first started, I received a lot of rejections. However, when I began focusing on characters as the heart of my stories, that’s when the acceptances started appearing in my inbox. It also helped me secure a publication deal for my psychological thriller, Dead Ringer.
Here are five tips on characterisation that have worked for me:
1. Establish key character facts early
At the start of a story, it’s a good idea to anchor your reader as quickly as possible. Who is the narrator/POV character? Are they a man or a woman? Age? Appearance? Job?
Of course, beginning a story with “Anna was a 35-year-old nurse with long blonde hair” is rather uninspiring. So you need to give clues, rather than spell it out for the reader.
Picking the right name can be a useful shorthand. Hollie is likely to be younger than Mabel. Mohammed is likely to look different to Rhys.
Otherwise, it’s a case of dropping breadcrumbs. A nurse might be pulling on her uniform as she heads out the door. A keen artist might have paint-flecked hair. A 50-year-old might be driving the flash car he bought to celebrate his big birthday.
2. Subvert the expected
In women’s magazines, the same themes and situations tend to crop up again and again. This is part of what’s lovely about the womag world, but editors do tend to look for fresh takes on familiar situations.
Using unexpected characterisation can keep things fresh. Instead of a new mum suffering the baby blues, why not a new dad? Instead of a cosy mystery starring a prim-and-proper white lady from suburbia, why not a Black woman who won’t take things lying down?
Don’t just stick with the first character idea that pops into your head. That first idea might be exactly what the reader is expecting. Instead, work on subverting those expectations.
3. Use contradictions
It’s easy to fall into cliché with characterisation. The cerebral surgeon plays chess in his spare time, or the rosy-cheeked primary school teacher bakes cakes in the evenings. My recipe for more interesting characters? Throw in a contradiction or two!
Maybe your serious vicar character also loves Zumba, or your gloomy teenage boy learns to knit.
Contradictory characters are unusually more interesting, and they make for interesting stories, too.
4. Get inside the character’s head
Because a character only appears on three pages, it’s easy to assume you only need to know three pages worth of information about them. In my opinion, characters are like icebergs. You may only see 10% of their characterisation in the story, but as the writer, you still need to discover the other 90%.
I do this through first-person free-writing. I spend an hour writing as if I am the main character. I write about ‘my’ childhood; ‘my’ job; ‘my’ relationships; ‘my’ hopes and dreams and fears and worries.
There’s no pressure for this stream-of-consciousness stuff to be any good. In fact, I won’t use most of it. But it allows me to get to know the character. Bits and pieces from this free-writing will always crop up in the finished story, creating a more fleshed-out and believable character.
5. Think about their emotional journey
Short stories can often suffer from the ‘so what?’ problem. You might have wrapped up the plot, but have you given the reader a reason to remember the story?
Taking the protagonist on an emotional journey (as well as a narrative one) can be the secret to making a story memorable. How are they changed by the events of the story? What are they going to do differently from now on?
You’ll find the answers to these questions by poking at the character’s emotional wounds. A recent divorcee might need to learn to trust again. An old-fashioned gent who’s always carried his family on his back might need to learn to accept help.
Weaving an emotional arc into your story, based on specific character details, can help to create something that resonates with the reader.
Think about your favourite books, movies or TV shows. You might not remember every detail of what happened, but you remember how heartbroken or joyful you felt when something big happened to your favourite character. When people tell me they’ve read my novel, Dead Ringer, they always talk about the characters and never about the plot or prose.
This is the reason it’s so important to take the time to create characters that connect with audiences. Characters are what people remember. And characters sell stories.
About the author: Nicola Martin is a writer from Bristol. Her short stories have appeared in The People’s Friend and placed in national competitions. Her debut psychological thriller, Dead Ringer, is about meeting your doppelganger (with disastrous consequences). The Daily Mail called it “tense and compelling”.