22 November 2009

Shortcuts to Characterization

Lesley's post on characterization tools inspired something I've been thinking about a lot, which is Shortcuts to Characterization. This is important in short stories because, well, they're short.

  • The Redshirt. Killing off a Redshirt can prove the foe is serious. But please give your Redshirt a name and a real relationship to your protagonist (which admittedly moves them somewhat out of the realm of Redshirtedness). When s/he dies, make it count. This is an opportunity to advance plots and create reversals within your protag, so make your Redshirt work for you.
  • Less is More. Keep as few characters as possible in your story, and try to keep only two talking in a scene at once. If you must have more than two present, then give a reason for one or more of them not to talk--busy them with readying the ship for flight, make them an underling (who will perhaps spout off with something surprisingly helpful or do something stupid to raise the stakes), or perhaps an alien who doesn't have their language.
  • Show Me The Money. Showing takes far less real estate than telling. Just let your character be who s/he is. No need to explain every action as long as they are true to character.
  • Fightclub. Deep conflict brings out your characters' real colors. Experiment with keeping every word they say and every action conflictual and watch your character shine.
  • Drop the History Lesson. We don't need to know everything that led up to this point in your protagonist's life. Devise a simple reason rooted in character - key word being simple. Certain people just draw conflict, by way of their career, personality, upbringing, or position in life. And there is a certain elegance in simplicity.


Merc said...

Good point. Thanks for the post. :D

lesleylsmith said...

Interesting comments, Editor Betsy. :)
I disagree with one thing you said: "Showing takes far less real estate than telling." I would say the opposite is true, however, showing almost always results in a better story.

FYI-The main problem I see in short stories is too much "history lesson". So, this is a particularly important point. :)

Betsy Dornbusch said...

I think it takes less real estate because some writers feel the need to explain, or tell, why their characters are acting the way the are. That takes more lines of narrative, often unnecessary, if showing is done right. Also showing can be very short, well thought-out, and eloquent. It often doesn't take an entire dialogue exchange to get at the heart of a character, for instance, but a single, well-placed line. In the right hands, effective showing can take a lot less time. Agreed, though, it does result in a better story.