Writing Short Stories: Beginning with Character

In my short story writing classes this year, I started a new approach that’s working wonders. We started with creating the main character, the protagonist and giving that character a problem. I’m going out on a limb and saying that’s all you really need: a character and a problem. You might wonder how that becomes a story. The story comes from how that character reacts to the problem. Usually, you’d think a character with a problem would want to solve the problem. Not all the time. Sometimes, characters will try to avoid the problem or ignore it. Or they will try to get rid of the problem–not necessarily solving it–but hiding, disguising, or pawning it off on someone else. Does that sound familiar? That’s because that is exactly what people do when they’re faced with problems: they try to solve them, avoid them, or get rid of them. There is a requirement before you can even write how your character approaches the problem: you need to know your character intimately–possibly even more than you know yourself. You need to know your character’s traits, which I identify as physical, psychological, and professional. Remember, not all traits are ideal–just because nobody is perfect. All human beings are complex and have one or more shortcomings, flaws, or faults, and this reality should reflect in your characters. Physical traits include all physical characteristics, down to crooked yellowing teeth and a mole on the left elbow. Psychological traits include personality, emotional profile, even personality types. An easy way to get general psychological traits is using zodiac personality traits or look at personality profiles based on different tests (Enneagram or Myers-Briggs are easy to find). You can also include habits and preferences, similar to a slumbook — favorite color, favorite song, favorite clothes, favorite movie, favorite food, and all other favorites as well as any particular dislikes. Professional traits don’t necessarily mean your character is a professional. This is just a way of describing what a character does–and professional can simply be a housewife or househusband, student, or retired navy captain. After identifying your character’s traits, you need to create a biographical history, a background, family, friends, associates, milieu. You need to know where the character grew up, lives, works, studied. You need to know what your character has for breakfast and where he or she gets coffee. Finally, you need to examine your character’s motivations: Why do they do what they do? Why do they think, act, speak, or feel a certain way? What makes them happy, sad, angry? What are they passionate about? Only when you know how your character feels and thinks will you be able to write how your character will react, what your character will do when faced with a particular problem. Then you will have a story.

 

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