Aristotle concluded that story is superior to character. In the 1800s, many thought that structure was simply a way to convey the fascinating characters that readers desired. But, as fiction continues to evolve, where do we stand today?
Looking at this from a writer’s perspective, I’ve recently realised that all of my novel-length pieces of work begin with character names/personalities; these create the initial spark that gets ideas flowing. The plot, the tension, the outcome – they all start to come alive as soon as a cast of names form in my head and are allowed to interact on the page. But when it comes to writing short stories, I get a sense of the mood that I want to convey first, and the characters come later. In fact, sometimes the characters come so late, I have to put the story aside for a very long time before they enter stage left.
Weird that both genres should be approached so differently – and weirder still that I’ve only just realised that this is how I work. So I decided to do a bit of investigating to try and understand what’s making me/my characters tick. Here’s my thoughts on some of the great advice that I found:
“The best characters stay with readers and listeners long after childhood is over. Think about the qualities that make a character stick with a picture book’s audience long after the book is shut.” (Ann Whitford Paul, Writing Picture Books, p54)
- Absolutely. I love children’s books and am in the process of writing some – they really make you think about the character on a larger-than-life scale because you’re trying to connect with the simplified, overly-honest viewpoint of a child. That character had better be memorable!
“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature… The finest writing not only reveals true character, but arcs or changes that inner nature, for better or worse, over the course of the telling.“ (Robert McKee, Story, p 101/4)
- I find this easier to achieve in a novel when you have more room to develop your characters – which is probably why my characters come first and the plot second (in terms of development, not importance).
“The function of structure is to provide progressively building pressures that force characters into more and more difficult risk-taking choices and actions, gradually revealing their true natures, even down to the unconscious self…The function of character is to bring to the story the qualities of characterization necessary to convincingly act out choices.“ (Robert McKee, Story, p 105/6)
- Again, although this fits with all genres, I find this easier in a novel-length piece. The format (in my world) lends itself to more exploration and I find the structure/characters fuse more easily
“The best modern short stories convey information by suggestion rather than by fact. Try to use suggestiveness and gestures to give a sense of character and story.” (Patricia O’Reilly, Writing for Success, p72)
- I find this challenging. Perhaps this is why the plot comes first when I’m writing short stories? Maybe I need to give myself a sense of character before the character becomes real? This can’t be a universal approach, so I’d love to hear how other writers tackle short stories.
As a writer, how do you handle your characters? And does your approach change if you switch genre?