This is adapted off a lecture I saw by Julie Schumacher, author of a number of critically acclaimed short stories (the one I’ve read is The Private Life of Robert Schumann). For some of you, this will sound pretty familiar—but that should be reassuring, because it means the stuff I’ve been writing about previously isn’t complete baloney. Goodness knows it could have been. So I feel vindicated by this. Anyways, she had some suggestions on short stories which will constitute a separate article, and four major points on characters which are following.

The Four Points

1. There is no place like home

As it turns out, you don’t have to look very far for great characters. Flannery O’Connor said (paraphrasing),

Surviving childhood is enough to write fiction

and I basically agree. Childhood is more or less a traumatic experience, since everyone seems to emerge from it as an adult. The Private Life of Robert Schumann is based on things that really happened in Schumacher’s middle school. Of course, she mixed things up with the addition of pedophilia, among other things. Pretty horrific stuff, made even more interesting because it is told from the perspective of children. So just look out for moments in your life where something was at all interesting, it could make for a great short story. What Schumacher specifically said, is that it is a profitable starting point for fiction.

2. Create vivid characters via details

Schumacher lead off with another paraphrased quote, from Robert Bly,

There is no route to the universal, except through the specific.

I’ve sort of touched on this before, so I won’t drag the point here. Schumacher had a simply excellent analogy for describing the difference between good and bad description though. What she said was, avoid the police sketch description. When trying to apprehend a criminal you certainly want to give a description like,

Middle aged white male. Approximately 5’11” and slightly stock. Blue eyes, brown hair, no facial hair. Has a prominent scar on his forehead, and is missing one of his front teeth.

But this has no place in a good description of a character. Physical details such as height, and weight don’t make your character who he is—unless it does, because there are always exceptions. If your character is deathly antisocial because he was so tall and skinny people called him a freak all through middle school, this is important stuff. This character still needs specific details though. He sounds like he would be nervous often, what does he do when he is nervous? Does he pull his hair, do a little dance with his toes, or shake his right hand randomly?

3. Write complex characters, not stereotypes

If your character is a stereotype, he needs rescuing. If your character is the average stock investor, or weight lifter, or computer nerd, your character will be helplessly flat. Real people are interested in a whole range of interesting things, and your characters should reflect this. What this means is that there is hope for your stereotyped character, you just have to make him or her more interesting.

4. Your antagonists must be compelling

For examples of films where this is used to great effect, see The Silence of Lambs and The Dark Knight. Your readers should say, “he was so horrific, but I couldn’t look away”. Your antagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be likable, understandable, or sympathetic so long as he is compelling, where you hate him but you still want to know what he does. That’s a powerful effect.

A writing exercise

Give yourself three minutes to think of three vivid details for a single character.

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  1. Virgil on 10 October 2008, 19:30 said:

    Good article. Although all this are great starting points for great characters, they story surrounding them makes them phenomenal, and hopefully things happen that affect them permanently.

  2. SlyShy on 10 October 2008, 19:36 said:

    Yeah, I’m getting to that in the short story article actually, haha. A marked trait of good short stories is that the character is changed by the end.

  3. Virgil on 10 October 2008, 20:11 said:

    Cool. I feel like writing another article, but no ideas have jumped out at me. I’ve taken a look several times at your suggestion list too.

  4. Snow White Queen on 11 October 2008, 19:30 said:

    a very timely article indeed.

    character is one of THE most important parts of a story in my opinion. if i can’t stand the characters, a book i’m reading usually ends up in the trash.

  5. fffan on 27 February 2010, 19:55 said:

    I still think that Batman Begins is a better example of a compelling antagonist than The Dark Knight but yeah, this is a cool article.

  6. Theresa on 2 March 2010, 18:30 said:

    “a very timely article indeed.” I agree with you completely.

  7. Esky on 13 April 2011, 01:59 said:

    “Surviving childhood is enough to write fiction”

    Exactly. The social situations childhood forces you into are situations you really can’t escape from (you attend school involuntarily, face pressure to belong to a clique and all the drama that entails, etc. – and powerless to do anything because you can’t run and adults think it’s all silly childhood nonsense). I think my characters are well-developed, but through no talent of my own. Childhood created every character I could want, the funny to the frightening and everything in between. And that’s why I mostly write for children…when I distanced myself from the drama – and believe me, I did that as soon as I got the chance – I distanced myself from the muse as well.