Character Development

In a compelling short story, characters never remain stagnant. Instead, they go through  an arc: that is to say they change over the course of the story. What changes?- change as a result of tragedies, or uncovering a new way of thinking.

As an author, it's up to you to take your characters on a journey that will resonate with readers while staying true to your style and plot.

What to Leave Out

In order to completely develop a character, you must give your readers all the necessary information pertaining to your characters [either main or flat] while leaving other, less critical points, to the reader's  own interpretation.

You have to understand what to leave out and what to state. It's a difficult balancing act; if you say too much you may bore your readers; say too little and leave them too bewildered to focus on your story.

One of the most effective ways to begin to tackle the tightrope act of developing characters is to sketch a path for your character to walk before you begin your short story. You don't have to be overly detailed; a simple outline (as in the one below) will do:

  1. Frank, a 12-year-old underage hunter, kills a baby rabbit [belonging to his neighbor who sells exotic rabbits.] He mistook it for a wild one.

  2. Worried about getting caught, he buries the rabbit's body in the forest

  3. Each day, he visits the gravesite to inspect it.

  4. He begins to obsess about the need for a tombstone for the rabbit and buys one

  5. He starts to tend to the grass around the tombstone

  6. Frank begins to fret over the dead rabbit, praying at the grave regularly

  7. One day while praying, Frank is caught by the neighbor who suspected him.

  8. The neighbor reports him to the human society of their town.

  9. Frank must do 'restorative justice' and work for the neighbor.

  10. The neighbor isn't friendly.

  11. Frank discovers a deep, dark secret about the neighbor's rare rabbit selling business.

You've not only developed the outline for a gripping tale, you've also predetermined the journey Joseph must take in order to move your story along.

Take Your Character From A to Z
Using this outline, it's apparent that you will have to take Frank through an arc, all the while staying true to his character. You must be cautious, though; too much character building can confuse your reader. Better to say just enough than to bombard your readers with extraneous details.

For instance, take these two sentences. Which one develops the character more succinctly?

1: Frank felt afraid for having shot the rabbit; he stared at the carcass at his feet.

2: Frank stared intently at the death he had wrought due to one foolish action.

Though both sentences describe the moment after Frank shoots the baby rabbit, the second implicitly carries more weight about Frank. By rearranging words and images, the reader is drawn into Frank's mindset in a less overt way in sentence number 2. The reader can actively interpret the scene, drawing his or her own conclusions instead of being told what to think.

As the character of Frank changes and becomes more obsessed with the gravesite, the author must ensure that Frank's actions are believable and fit his personality. Therefore, even though he's young and illegally owns a gun [tough guy], he should show more than an little sensitivity (otherwise, he wouldn't tend to the deer's grave.) You can imply that sensitivity elsewhere in the story, with Frank kindly helping a bullied kid  or petting a puppy in the park.

Again, how you choose to develop your characters is as important as the characters themselves. Move along their emotional, psychological, and/or physical developments [character arc] with well-chosen phrases that engage the reader without leaving him or her bored or confused.

And, of course, if at any point in the development of your story you're unsure whether your character has appropriately changed or if your writing has become overly flowery, have a trusted (and honest) friend read over what you've written.

Remember - you hold the key to unlocking your characters' transformations, be they overwhelming or minute. Spend some time reworking your sentences and suddenly your characters will turn from two-dimensional creations to deep, realistic persons.

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