Many writers are trying their hands at writing genre fiction, particularly short stories. If you’re new to fiction, it’s much easier to start with a short story or two than it is to start writing a novel, and then get bogged down. And since you can publish each story as an ebook, and then later, when you have a series, publish your collection as a bundle, why not write short stories?
Writing 20 short stories of 5,000 words each will teach you more about writing fiction than writing a 100,000 word novel. And they’ll make more money for you too.
Characters, or Plot?
You may have heard of Lester Dent’s formula for a 6,000 word short story. (Check out Karen Woodward’s article, for more on Dent.)
Dent was a prolific pulp fiction writer. You can certainly apply his formula to your own short stories, if you’re writing action fiction or mysteries, where the plot is all that counts. However, for other forms of fiction, your characters become more important.
I hesitated when I wrote “for other forms of fiction, your characters become more important,” because it’s not true. Your characters are vital in all your stories. The more you can create characters readers love, the more your fiction will sell. You’ll find too, that if you manage to create a character that YOU love, you’ll be inspired to write more about that character, and perhaps even expand your short story into a novel.
Tip: characters readers love and remember don’t need to be perfect. Readers dislike Mary Sues. Wonderful characters are often far from perfect. Consider Scarlett O’Hara, or Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair.
So, how do you create characters readers love? These three tips will help.
1. Your Character Wants Something, and Will Do Anything to Get It.
What does your character want? Highsmith’s Tom Ripley will do anything, including murder, not to be poor again.
Readers love characters who go all-out to get what they want. These characters are motivated. This makes for conflict, and excitement. Creating characters who WANT is a short-cut to plotting. Scarlett O’Hara, Becky Sharp, and Tom Ripley all want something desperately. Becky and Tom will do anything to get out of poverty. Scarlett wants that too eventually. However, for most of the long book, she wants Ashley Wilkes.
Action tip: ask yourself, and your character, what he wants. Why does he want it?
2. Your Readers Understand Your Character’s Thought Processes.
Books are more satisfying than movies, because we know a character’s thoughts. This makes for emotion. We empathize with the character. Although the character may be despicable, when you show his thoughts, and readers understand him, they will empathize, and you’ll create a memorable character.
Action tip: show your character’s thoughts. Never say that he’s “angry”. Share his angry thoughts.
3.Your Character Learns and Changes.
A character that readers love changes over the course of a book. Becky and Scarlett change, and so does Tom Ripley. In a short story, you can’t show a character’s changes over time and experiences. However, your character does have an experience which teaches him something. Readers know that as a result of that experience, his life is changed.
Action tip: what does your character learn? Create a scene in your short story, as a result of which, your character changes.
Characters readers love needn’t be perfect. They can be unpleasant. However, their intense desires and thoughts create emotion in readers. You remember Tom Ripley long after you’ve forgotten the plot of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Have fun creating wonderful characters. 🙂
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Updated: October 26, 2016
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