Exploring characters in short stories

Karalee’s Post #80

I’m going to dedicate some time on writing short stories as this seems to be where my mind set is lately. With all the self-work and personal growth I have been pursuing over the the last year or so, keeping a whole novel story going seems to be too much for my brain at the moment.

Life has had its challenges, and believe me, one’s childhood, one’s back story, plays a very strong role that is difficult to overcome. Building trust and belief in new ways of thinking about the world is hard work and emotionally draining. My insight into one’s past though, will be great fodder for future character development in my stories I’m sure.

That said, character development is where I struggle. I want complex characters with challenges as well as expertise, intelligence and fears and successes and regrets. Why do I have such difficulty in creating such people in my writing?

Paula in her last post Just Ask hit my fear button. Paula is a great thinker and talker and seems fearless in asking anyone anything.

Just ask her!

Not me. Not all of us 5Writers are fearless interviewers. That’s where my own back story comes in and plays a role I wish it didn’t. I’m a smart person and once-upon-a-time was eager to participate in classes and groups and didn’t mind speaking up and be noticed. That is, until one of my teachers humiliated me in front of her class for being, well, ahead of the class so-to-speak, and she didn’t handle the situation professionally. Looking back at other childhood experiences before then, this was the last straw, and my courage to put myself “out there” has never returned.

So to me even the thought of just asking is daunting.

But Paula is right, and I’m glad she has challenged us writers to sit down with real people and learn about real life so we can write more realistically. I know that if I can do it, most of you can too. This is an area that I need to push myself to participate in in order to improve my writing, and my confidence in my writing.

In general I’m a good talker in small groups. Asking someone about something you know nothing about doesn’t hurt, and it doesn’t cause real pain. Besides it’s a great way to get to know other people, which is a good thing as writing is a lonely job.

Most people are more than willing to give of their time and expertise and divulge what they know. Who doesn’t like talking about what they love doing? And generally people don’t smell or bite either, and they won’t laugh at you for asking questions they may think are weird or not-so-intelligent because they don’t expect you to know what it’s really like to be a fire-eater, or dog whisperer, or trapeze artist, or forensic psychologist, or sniper, or any other profession that takes years to learn or become expert at.

So just ask. After preparing your questions of course, which means that you need to have some idea of what your story is about, and therefore what you need to learn about. Do some research, or do a lot if you are like me and nervous about asking relevant questions or the “right” questions.

I will take Paula’s suggestion to heart and break into my discomfort zone and push myself to just ask. For the next few months, especially with travelling for a month in Europe this summer without my computer, I’ve decided to write a few short stories and explore a few characters to see if one compels me to bring him/her along into a full length novel story.

I will make a point of meeting real people and interview them, after all I do enjoy talking. It could be fun too!

Characters I’ve liked in previous books I’ve written seem to be my secondary characters, as often happens with writers. I may bring one or two into new light, maybe even together and see what develops. I’m looking forward to exploring a few story ideas too.

I’m wondering if other writers have written short stories as a way to explore their characters?

Happy writing!


6 thoughts on “Exploring characters in short stories

  1. This rings so true for me – developing my main characters is my big challenge as well. Secondary characters always come out so much better and eventually take over. I wonder if it has to do with trying to make our protagonists flawless (or likeable because of her flaws), and by doing so we may over-compensate? I think your exercise of writing short stories and explore if any of the characters may have the legs to make it into a novel is excellent. I will try it too. Great post!

    • Thanks Helga. I look forward to reading one of your short stories and connect with a great new character.

  2. So here’s my theory about why main characters are so much harder to write than secondary ones: they’re us.

    The story is from their point of view … and no matter how much we make them NOT like us, that point of view is still, to some extent, our own. Also, I think we judge them much more harshly than the secondaries … just like we judge ourselves. And we really really want readers to like them, to understand them. Even when we give them flaws, we still want readers to care about them. How is that so different from how we want people to react to ourselves?

    For me, that’s why writing the main character is so personal. I don’t think there’s any way out of this loop, because we have to be able to identify with our own main characters, or it won’t be much of a story.

    I’d love to know how other writers have learned to craft their main characters without having this dilemma. Or maybe they haven’t?

    • Your thoughts ring true Silk. Maybe as writers we need to “mature up” and not worry about what people will think about our main characters and let him/her act their natural selves like we allow our secondary characters to. Do I really care what my mother thinks?

  3. As Silk notes, there is at least an element of “us” in those main characters. For me, this often means I don’t want the main doing something that isn’t me but that readers might think is me. (I hope that made sense!)

    But that’s not fair to the character or the story. Learning to let the mains do, say, and think as themselves is a great step forward for a writer.

    • Yes it is difficult to not feel personally exposed when our main characters act or have feelings that make us uneasy or appear crazy or too different. But if we go there and allow our characters to behave the way they are meant to, then we are allowing ourselves to write something extraordinary and uninhibited, and that is enlightening too. Isn’t that part of what pushes us to be writers?

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