Sparking up character in the short story

Copyright © 2011 Jerry Dunne

It’s difficult enough to bring character to life in a novel, but a short story offers an even trickier challenge. Many writers need time to build their character and give it energy. They can’t just slap down a few details on paper and watch it jump into life. They build it slowly and thoughtfully in the set-up stage of the story and then through plot movement. They do this by using a combination of exposition and description. Exposition is where the writer tells you things directly about the character, such as where they were born and grew up. This is the easiest way of giving information about character. But a character really only comes to life through description or the concept of ‘SHOW, not tell’. Here the writer will usually describe their habits, fears, etc. through the action of the scene without actually telling you these things directly. After a number of scenes the character comes to life and you become increasingly familiar with the character. If the character then does something unexpected, or out of character, we are suddenly aware of it. The more we get to know the character the more credible and energetic they should appear to us.

So how can we accomplish this character energy and level of familiarity in the short story when its length might only be the length of a novel’s chapter?

Your emphasis should be on developing an aspect of character related solely to your short story’s idea (the idea which made you sit down and start planning it all out) first and foremost before doing any further character building. This is a focussed and quick way of creating character and infusing it with energy. By doing it like this, by concentrating tightly on only one aspect of character, that part related directly to the story’s idea, you also keep the idea and plot constantly up front in your mind. This in turn helps keep unnecessary writing of both character and plot to a minimum.

This will almost always mean you need to concentrate on expressing the inner workings of character first and only adding to it when other details are needed. The inner workings are the character’s motivations, fears, ambitions, prejudices, anxieties, etc. But I always think of the word attitude first when dealing with a character’s inner mechanisms.

For an example of how to advance with this idea, let’s work with one of my children’s short stories Paddy’s Beard.

You have an image in your mind of a 10-year-old boy with a beautiful beard and think you might develop a short story out of this image. You want a baddie to come along to try and force this boy to part with his beard which will create the conflict of the story. Some writers will start creating the character of the boy with a description of the beard, then the boy’s eye colour, and building up his character this way. The beard is the inspiration and they build the character externally, probably imagining the boy’s interests, family background, etc. This is the way some writers work, but it is an unfocussed way of working. Because we are writing short stories you can quickly work out your character’s attitude as it is related to the idea and then to let the character spring into life through the force of his attitude.

So, rather than worry about external factors at this point, ask yourself: What is this boy’s attitude to his beard? Out of that question come these sorts of questions: How much does he like it? How has life been different for him with his beard? How would he feel about losing it? Would he miss it? How far would he be prepared to go to keep it?

To simplify! Boy has a beard. He loves it. He’d do a lot to keep it if he was threatened with its loss.

Now we have the protagonist’s attitude to his beard, we can speedily develop his character because the plot and conflict of the story revolve only around his beard.

It is nice to let the reader know the colour of the boy’s eyes, and many readers will want to know this, but it actually tells us nothing about his attitude to his beard, the whole reason for the story. His attitude will give him energy and bring him to life, his eye colour won’t. If I left out every physical description about this boy in the story, except the physical description of the beard, his character would be just as strong and focussed because his actions would still show his attitude. That doesn’t mean you don’t need physical description (people like it); it just means it’s not the most important thing in bringing a character to life for the plot movement – unless you relate external factors directly to internal factors which in turn are related to the plot. In other words, if you use the physical description to reflect the character’s inner attitude, then you are doing something useful and pertinent.

Of course, it is only after the antagonist is introduced that the plot jumps into life. In this story, the antagonist wants to make the boy shave off his beard. Now as soon as the protagonist and antagonist begin to struggle with one another the plot will start to race along; and as the plot twists and turns Paddy’s attitude to his beard will become more and more apparent and therefore we will see his character grow in strength and development. This happens because of the decisions and actions Paddy makes in his struggle to try and keep his beard.

So, be careful! If you feel your character is not coming to life, no matter how much attention to detail you have used, ask yourself whether it is relevant detail related to the character’s attitude which in turn is related to the original idea which in turn is related to the plot.

Remember! Character – attitude – idea – plot. All closely interlinked.


This article is an edited extract from a chapter in Jerry Dunne’s book How to Write Children’s Short Stories (for the Middle Reader).

In the next post related to this one, Exercises For Sparking Up Character In The Short Story  we will look at some exercises that concentrate on bringing character quickly to life. Here is a link to it:

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