a few short story tips: character

It took me two and a half years to finish writing my novel. It is now tucked away securely in the back of my drawer, waiting for the day that I will eventually take it out and revisit it. But for now, I’ve let go of this massive undertaking, and moved on to writing short stories and poetry instead.

It is with relief that I first started writing short stories again, but this relief soon turned more mixed emotions, where I found out that I did not know how to write a short story.

It was fortunate then, that last year I took my first fiction writing workshop, where we learned the basics of writing fiction, especially short stories, especially literary fiction. So I’m going to share what I learned about what is arguably the three elements of fiction – character, point of view, and plot. This post I’ll dedicate to character, because it’s the one that I enjoyed the most learning about.

(I just realized that all three of my paragraphs so far have started with “It”, and while I thought about changing the sentence structure, I realized that I was too tired to do it.)

An argument can be made about character being the most important part of the story, and this quote pretty much sums it up:

“Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”

– Ray Bradbury

In a traditional story, the character would have two things: wants and needs. The “want” part of the characterization is conscious, while “need” is usually subconscious. The character’s want pushes the active plot of the story, whereas the need propels the emotional plot. A perfect example would be Nico di Angelo from the Percy Jackson series. At first, Nico tries everything to bring back his dead sister, Bianca (want). He summons ghostly spirits and even tries to trade his soul with hers. But at the end of the story, with a little help from Percy and Bianca, Nico realizes that he needed to move on (need).

And thus with this duality of want v.s. need, all traditional stories can be boiled down to four endings: Character gets what they want and what they need (comedy); character gets what they want but not what they need (semi-tragic); character gets what they need but not what they want (semi-comic); and character gets neither what they want nor need (tragedy).

(I might’ve messed up on the semi-tragic and semi-comic one, but I’m pretty sure it’s right.)

Most stories end with the character not getting what they wanted but what they needed, as it is the most emotionally satisfying ending of all four.

Over the past few months, I’ve found myself drawn to writing stories where the character gets what they want but not what they need, most notably Elisabeth and The Art Show. (Apologies for the self-promo.)

There’s a lot more on character I could go on about, but it’s almost time for dinner and I’m too hungry to continue.

I realized today that I only ever complain about being hungry and/or being tired.

Stay tuned for my post on plot next time!

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