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Questioning your Characters

April 29, 2009

It goes without saying that short stories revolve around the characters. Paul on Sunday reflected how our main characters are drawn from the writers psyche. He left us wondering how they would react or answer if posed situations or questions from the writers actual life. This is a valuable tool for fleshing out a lack luster storyline or flat character; for more often than not, it is not the story or the characters fault the words on the page do not tell a compelling tale, but more that the writer has not asked the right questions.

It is generally accepted that a short story  will accommodate up to three characters. If your story needs any more to get the message across, then it is either destined to be a longer, more involved piece of prose and likely not suited to flash fiction, or your characters need to be pulled into line and the superfluous ones told to sit on the bench for this one. Question each character demanding their justification in keeping them in the text. Why are you in this story? What is your outcome for the end of the story? How do you relate to the other characters and how does this assist the storyline?

A character can either be a living (or undead depending on your definition) being or in some cases can be an environment or weather phenomenon. The protagonist needs to move through the setting and be faced by its opposing force as its part of what makes both the story and your character come alive. Is your character passive or active when it comes to the conflicts they encounter? If someone confronts them, do they change the subject,  stalk off, or do a deep-breathing exercise? When someone insults them are they likely to fly off the handle, just take it and say nothing or give as good as they got?

Character and settings often reflect one another ; this technique working well to give a story a more rounded or polished presentation, allowing your to show not tell your story in a deeper manner. If your character is in a bad mood, they will see things that reflect that mood as they are walking down the street – the overflowing and reeking rubbish bins, the snarling dogs, the overpriced products on display within the shops, the miserable rain or biting wind, the colourless visage of the buildings. A character in a good mood will focus on other things – the lovers in the park ignoring the rain, the brightly coloured flower pots, the rainbow effect the multitude of umbrellas have in a crowd, the warmth oozing from each lit shop they pass, the clean smell rain brings to the usually smoggy city, the smiles on peoples faces as they walk past. Does your character like the rain? Why / why not?

Too often characters just seem to sit here unmoving throughout the narrative and this can be largely due to their own boredom or lack of challenge within the storyline. Push your characters into showing you more than the veneer of what they outwardly look like or the surface emotions they are displaying. A few weeks ago, Jodi spoke about  mannerisms and how they can add depth and texture to a character.

Ask more unconventional questions to deepen your understanding of their motivators, inner secrets and habits.

  • What is in your fridge right now?
  • What poster or picture is hanging on your toilet door? Why?
  • Whats on the bedroom floor? Why?
  • What book are you reading? Why?
  • Whats in your rubbish bin this week? Why?

No matter how you get the blood on the page, your first editing phase must include you submitting your characters to questions to fill out the missing zest your story needs. The answers they give to the questions you ask will provide a solid start in building believable characters. Remember, you don’t need to divulge all your characters secrets or inner workings to the readers…. at least not immediately!

For further reading check out Gotham Writers as they have a comprehensive downloadable document suggesting questions an author might ask their characters.

Annie Evett is too nervous to ask most of HER main characters what they might have on their bedroom floor or in their fridge….and she is not even going to think about whats in the freezer or the garden shed.
  1. April 29, 2009 6:57 am

    Great post.

    I sense a kind of theme with the recent posts because they all kind of link together, they’re making me think and proof is in the recent writing-related blog posts on my blog.

    Now just need to find time to put pen to paper.

  2. April 30, 2009 1:14 am

    Thanks for this Annie. I’m lining up my characters Liv and Jarred from Light Years for a quiet chat to try and join up the dots I seem to have already put down.
    My writing circle today was really interesting but pointed out there are big holes I need my characters to fill in for me.

    Looking forward to writing about “crossing over” next week in my column after all this talk of characters and short stories!

  3. April 30, 2009 10:22 am

    Thanks for this and also for the link. I’m also looking forward to seeing your secondary characters for your Chinsese Whisperings story as I shall be using one of them for my story.

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