Short Stories: Getting to Know My Characters

My cozy-in-progress is having a personality crisis.

I have the murder mapped out. I know who got killed, why they got killed, and whodunnit. But I’m floundering on the characters. They’re flat. They behave in odd ways that don’t feel authentic. In one case, I made my main character do something that felt completely wrong. I felt like a bad mother.

That’s when I stepped away from the keyboard and took a walk. What happened? I asked myself. Why did the story turn in that direction? I didn’t understand.

As I picked my way along the gravel walking path in our neighborhood, it hit me. I think I passed on an important step while I plotted my book: I didn’t take the time to properly meet my characters. How can my story move forward in a believable way when I don’t know what motivates my people?

What to do?

Some writing sites suggest interviewing the character. Many have lists of personal questions to ask him/her. Where were you born? What’s your favorite food? Do you have a pet? If you had a million dollars, what would you do with it?

Maybe it’s just me, but I find that route an exercise in boredom. The classic question-and-answer format doesn’t reveal to me the core of a character because I usually give up by the fifth question.  

Others say that the character’s nature reveals itself as the novel progresses. That’s true, but I’m not comfortable going into a story without some clue into how they will react to certain situations. That doesn’t mean that I must know everything. I simply want to understand them within the context of my virtual world.

Obviously I needed another route into their heads.

That’s why I am stepping away from my novel until the end of the year to write short stories.

The thought is this: I write small tales that set up similar worlds for my characters along with simple mysteries to solve. With a limited list of suspects, my challenge is to write a mystery that the reader won’t solve in the first three paragraphs. (Of course, it was the hairdresser best friend who had always been jealous of Tiffany’s scissor skills.) How is my main character, who is not a professional detective, going to suss out the killer? What’s her style? Does her background and past experiences come into play? Will she be able to evade the red herrings without pointing the finger at an innocent person?

This leads to more pointed questions that offer insight into my character’s personality. What happened to her six months before she ended up in this situation? Did her husband leave her? If he did, how and why? What did she do that sent her to this little town where bodies pile up like cordwood?

Then there are the character’s reactions to unusual situations. If she giggles when she stumbles over a body, I want her to explain her behavior to the police. And to me, the reader.

And I want it to be believable.

Taking time off to focus on one aspect of a craft is not a new idea. At the beginning of his career, the great artist Vincent van Gogh didn’t slap a canvas on an easel and pop out masterpieces. In fact, he didn’t dip a brush into color for almost two years.

Van Gogh believed that he couldn’t paint well if he didn’t know how to draw. He understood that the foundation of all good painting is drawing (please don’t bring up Jackson Pollack’s spatter paintings as an example of drawing being unnecessary; that’s apples and oranges). When he started, he knew he wasn’t as good as he wanted to be. And, if painting was going to be his life’s focus, he wanted to be good. As anyone who aspires to become better at anything will tell you, practice is the only way to master a skill.

Want to be good at drawing? Draw. Then draw some more. After that? Keep drawing.

Once he felt confident in the foundations, van Gogh moved on to painting.

That’s why I’m moving into short stories. It’s all about practice. I’m taking the time to craft short stories before I move forward with the longer format. In the process, I hope to learn more about my characters.

The amazing science fiction author Ray Bradbury once said: Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.

I expect that some of my stories will be wretched, but that’s not the point. Who knows? Maybe a few of them will be passable enough to share here.

But until then I will keep moving on with my writing the way van Gogh moved ahead in his art. I will write. Then I’ll write some more. After that? I’ll keep writing.

Then, maybe, fingers crossed, I’ll have something good.

2 thoughts on “Short Stories: Getting to Know My Characters

  1. This is such a great way of thinking about our characters. I’ve been struggling to bring life to a couple of mine and what I’ve been doing is writing their “prequels” so that I have a handle of who they are before the story begins.

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    1. Hi Amanda, I like the idea of ‘prequels’. The things we find out may never make it into the final story, but I truly do believe that knowing about the characters before writing makes what they do all the more believable. Plus the shorter stories are fun to write and don’t feel like work – at least not to me. Thanks for sharing!

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