Ditch Those Cardboard Characters: How to Write More Realistic Characters in Fiction

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      Imagine yourself as a reader who has just spent $10 or so on a new book. You open it and read it through, excited to see what twists and turns the author has laid out for you. The plot is intricate and engaging, the setting dynamic and full of beautiful detail and imagery, and at first things seem to be going perfect. There’s just one tiny little problem: you aren’t really crazy about the protagonist.

      The main character is this perfect guy or gal who lives this fairly comfortable life. Or, perhaps he is a complete underdog who is consistently dealing with the deck being stacked against him. Either way, they happen to always make the right choice. They are incredibly attractive, successful, and talented, even if the world hasn’t figured it out yet. Perhaps even the villains fall a bit flat, portraying an image of evil for the sake of pure evil. Though the book had potential to be one of your favorites, you walk away feeling pretty….let down.

      Shout it from the rooftops, one of the most important things you can remember when writing fiction is that people are not flat and one-dimensional. They seldom do things for only one motivation or are driven by only one force. Black-and-white answers to problems are almost as rare as miracles. Humans are messy, complicated creatures. That’s what makes them so interesting to read and write about. The fact is, no one wants to read about a hero’s journey where the hero doesn’t change or learn anything. Maybe the hero has a massive fear of public speaking he has to face to get his message across to the world. Maybe she’s a wee bit forgetful and happens to miss an important engagement and hurt someone’s feelings. Maybe he just lies, often, and can’t seem to figure out why. When it comes to crafting characters, I like to think back to people I know in the “real world.” What makes them so interesting to be around? What are some of their weird quirks and habits? What massive contradictions exist within their personality? Is she a hardcore feminist with a secret nostalgia for the 1950s? Maybe he’s a bit of a misogynist because he secretly believes women are smarter. The possibilities are endless when it comes to creating depth within your characters.

      For me personally, I find the same to be true of antagonists and villains. Being evil for the sake of evil is a bit overrated, and doesn’t honestly make a whole lot of sense in the real world. Why is this person so hell-bent on stopping our hero from reaching their goals? Is it self-preservation? Was there a defining moment that upset our antagonist enough to turn towards the dark side? Maybe, in a different lighting, the “bad guy’s” motives are even understandable. Maybe he believes he’s saving society, or doing what he must because no one else is willing. While it might seem counter-intuitive to create sympathy for your antagonist, it makes for a much more interesting story for the reader. Off the top of my head, a great example of this is the Divergent series by Veronica Roth. Without giving too much away (spoiler alert!), there are several different antagonists introduced throughout the series. All have their own motives for their not-so-ethical behavior, despite their opposition to the MC’s goals. The problem is, even though you can see where all of them are coming from, they are all still pretty bad guys. You’re left with watching the MC attempt to choose between the lesser of all of the evils. It’s unsettling, sure…but so is life, which is what made it a great story.

      As I write this, I am staring at the manuscript open in another document, wondering if there is enough depth to some of my background characters. While I am often mindful of the detail I add into my protagonist, the supporting characters have a habit of falling a bit flat at times. Thankfully, I have the rest of this summer to focus on NANOWRIMO and edits. For now, I think I’ll brew a pot of coffee and return to my book. After all, the best writing often comes from intensive reading.

Be well!

Keeping Short Stories Short

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Have you ever had that frustrating moment where you sit down to write the perfect short story for a submission or contest, only to feel like you have no choice but to write a novel (or, if you’re anything like me, a series)? Maybe the contest you’re entering calls for 3,000 words, but you can’t help yourself and end up with 10,000 in the first weekend. Friends, I completely feel your struggle. Sometimes, you just can’t help but build that world and fully flush out those characters.

Keeping the short story short can be difficult, especially for those of us who naturally gravitate towards writing novels. However, sometimes we find ourselves wanting to tell big stories in small spaces. Writing a short story can be quite a different beast from a novel. Pacing has to be quicker, and characters have to be developed faster. It can be frustrating trying to perfect what my sister now calls the “word count crisis.” Here are a few little tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way, mostly by trial and (a lot of) error.

  1. Avoid anything that requires a lot of world-building. I know, this one breaks my heart too. I love my fantasy as much as any writer. I love sci-fi possibly more. In a short story, however, there just isn’t always enough space to set it up convincingly. While I’ve read plenty of amazing short stories from both genres, I am sure this was no small feat for the writer to piece together in such a small space. If you’re feeling bold, by all means, give it a whirl! For me personally, though, I’ve found anytime I set out to write a fantasy short story I wind up with a novella.
  2. Focus on one “crisis.” When you’re writing a novel, you have the freedom to introduce more complex conflicts and resolutions. With a short story, you have somewhere between 1,000 and 8,000 words to introduce and resolve the conflict. That might be pretty difficult if you try adding in copious amounts of backstory, or an overly complicated conflict. I’ve found it easier to stick within my word count when I focus on one major turning point or conflict in my character’s life.
  3. Cut the fluff. This goes back to editing being a tear-jerking process for some of us, but I would argue it matters even more in short stories than it does in novels. If a scene is not serving your story, or if it happens to be full of fluff, cut it and don’t look back. Every word chosen needs to serve the plot and drive the characters forward. If it doesn’t seem like an overly important scene, it probably does not belong in your final draft.
  4. Avoid introducing too many characters. While readers might love having 4 main characters in your novel, in a short story it can just become confusing to try to keep multiple characters straight. It can also cause your reader to struggle to connect with your MC if there is too much else going on. Keep it simple. If the character does not drive the plot forward, or if you can do it without them, cut the character.
  5. Telling is (finally) okay. We hear all the time in writing, “show, don’t tell.” This is perfect advice for adding sensory details and intrigue to novels, but it isn’t always possible with flash fiction or short stories. Don’t be afraid to tell your reader some of what is going on, or why things are the way they are. On the other hand, trust your reader to fill in the descriptive details you might have to leave out.

 

So, there you have it. I plan to work on cranking out a few more short stories between now and July’s writing month, simply to practice the craft. Though it may not come easily or naturally to you, even the epic writer can craft a compelling short with enough practice. Happy weekend!