There are readers out there who will happily ride an action-adventure story to its exciting climax even if its characters are cardboard cutouts. Sometimes I’m even one of them. If you want to appeal to a wider audience, however, it helps immensely to populate your stories with sympathetic and complex human (and inhuman) beings, bringing them to life on the page and in the imagination of your audience.
In a short work of fiction you won’t have the luxury of spending pages or even whole chapters on your characters’ births, backgrounds, educations, and formative childhood experiences. Giving a sense of who they are in just a few paragraphs–and then building on that strong first impression–is a must.
Readers learn about character through:
• what they say about themselves
• what other characters say about them
• what the author tells us directly
• most importantly, what they do
All these sources of information combine to create a portrait of a person.
When introducing a character in a short story, consider what aspect of that character’s personality is most important. What actions might convey that? Suppose your protagonist is kindhearted. You could, of course, just say so:
“Frances was kindhearted.”
But can you find an action that expresses the same idea without telling?
Frances fished out his last coin without hesitating, giving it to the beggar.
Once you have presented an action, look again at the sentence. Are there any other bits of information about the character that can be slid gracefully into the same scenelet?
Brother Frances fished with his robotic left hand for his last coin; without hesitating, he gave it to the beggar.
Now your reader knows that Frances is a member of a religious order, a cyborg or robot, and generous.
Remember, whenever possible in a short story, make every sentence multitask. You can’t always deliver information, evoke the senses, deepen character and move forward the plot all in one sentence… but the more you gracefully pack into each sentence, the more a reader will get out of it. In the case of an all-important character-introduction, punch up the verbs, see if you can broaden the impact of the character-trait-revealing action, and look for ways to slip in a sensory detail or two:
Brother Frances’s metal fingers snagged the rough fabric of his robe as he fished in his pocket for a coin. His gaze never left the tattered beggar hovering on the edges of the food line as, with a clink of metal on metal, he found it. One sovereign, his last. He caught the girl’s eye and crooked a silver finger; when she wisped over, eyes wary, he pressed it into her scabbed and dirty palm. “Take my place in line, Child,” he whispered, and then, belly rumbling, he walked away.
If your protagonist is a kind-hearted robomonk who feeds the poor, chances are your readers are going to be prepared to like him, but not everyone is a saint. Few of us would enjoy reading about a cast of wholly unredeemable characters (unless the point of the story is seeing rotten humans pay for their crimes, as often happens in a certain type of horror story). Readers generally need someone to like in every piece. If your character is a flawed person who does both good and bad things, a few ways to get readers on their side might include:
• making a good first impression, as discussed above, before revealing their personal flaws
• a saving grace–your character is something of a bastard, but is kind to horses, never shoots anyone in the back, she banks to support her virtuoso sister at school
• your character is the victim of an undeserved misfortune
• your character is funny–readers love to hate an ironic and witty anti-hero
Questions to ask when thinking about characterization in SF: