Short Story Characterization: 6 MORE Tricks That’ll Make Your Character’s Ink Bleed Red

Here are 6 more advanced “tricks” for short story characterization

Here are the first six, which included:

  1. Combining characters who serve the same function in the story.
  2. Being careful about the timing and weight of non-central characters.
  3. Having your character be interesting in the first place.
  4. Not mistaking idiosyncrasies for character depth.
  5. How minimalism is an artistic style not a copout for weak ass characters.
  6. The reason you have to actually read literary journals.

If you haven’t read them already, read the first 6 short story characterization tricks, before moving on.

7. A character’s motivation can’t achieve clarity until you do

I once wrote a 75 page novella. Then I saw a movie with the same premise, changed it, and boiled it down to a now-published 25 page story. The exploratory writing of the fifty pages I cut taught me exactly what my character wanted.

Then I workshopped the story. And the character’s motivation and therefore the plot changed again in the next draft. If I hadn’t cut fifty pages and allowed other eyeballs to look at the story, I never would’ve achieved the distance I needed to make it publishable.

Figure out how you best achieve distance/clarity from your work, and do it.

8. What the hell does “Write what you know” mean in practice?

Ray Bradbury wrote this amazing book called Zen in the Art of WritingGo buy it and read it now.

Two main principles I took away from reading it were that a short story should:

  1. Be about a topic that you either really love or really hate.
  2. Have a character in your story that wants something related to that love/hate of yours.

When you approach a story in this way whatever you love/hate, or “know,” will sync up nicely with the driving force of the character by the second or third draft. There are millions of examples of how this can work out. Regardless, I am convinced that this is a formula for those stories that are just special.

To find what you love/hate Bradbury suggests making lists of nouns. Sounds silly, but it’s a pretty powerful way of doing this. The third step in this system is starting off with steps 1 and 2 covered, and just freewriting until a story takes shape.

9. Get used to exploratory writing if you care about character

Hemingway said that “the first draft of anything is shit.” I’d amend that to “the first draft of anything is drawing a map.”

Exploratory writing is different than freewriting.

Exploratory Writing is done with the intent of eventually producing a final product, but with the conscious acceptance that most of it will totally suck, and being at total peace with that because you’re willing to find “Atlantis.”

I touched on exploratory writing in #7, but I use it here to illustrate that you might sit down for a day’s writing without much of a plan in mind and end up writing the best short story you’ve ever written. You might think that one character is your POV character and end up with another. You may simply be writing the backstory your character needs in order for you to make a story set at a different time in his life work.

The trick is being open to exploring. If you aren’t, you risk writing wooden characters.

10. You should cater to your favorite literary journals

This may seem against the grain for the “true artist” in you, but just relax and hear me out. When you find that handful of journals that suit your genre and stylistic aesthetics, see what type of characters and narrative structures the editors are publishing.

Then, whether in revision or at the beginning of drafting a new story you can cater your writing to those editors.

To a certain extent. Without detracting much of anything artistically.

You won’t get this advice elsewhere because it contrasts with the ideals of the artistic process, but it’s true. Being genuine to your own writing involves finding like-minded journals; the next step is making the editors happy so they’ll publish you.

11. Fiction Sense versus Real life Sense

Although this sounds obtuse, it’s painfully simple. Real life can be a messy shit show full of years of apathy, no conflict, senseless decisions, and no climactic moments.

Sorry, bro, no one wants to read that crap.

No matter what type of fiction, readers almost always want some element of escapism.

Fiction Sense means approaching your story and character arcs in a way that pleases a reader’s expectations, be it the traditional story structure or whatever a certain audience expects. So a clever character or situation, some sort of tension, a climactic moment, and all the questions answered at the end.

You’d be amazed how difficult it is for amateur writers to make it over this hurdle, believing that “but this is how it would happen in Real Life,” is valid.

12. What makes a short story “good” is the affect it has on the reader

A good note to end on is defining what makes a short story “good.” Honestly, it’s impossible. But from my experience it involves three things:

  1. Character Empathy
  2. Character Rememberability
  3. Character’s Epiphany Being Meaningful

I’m convinced this is what it takes to write a short story that matters. Notice that all three involve characterization.

If your readers can relate to the character emotionally and can remember either the name and/or character traits a week later, then you’re going to get that story published. Same goes for the character’s arc, or how they change, sometimes called the epiphany.

If the character’s epiphany is relateable, if it hits on some larger Truth the reader recognizes for the first time, about themselves and/or the world at large, then you’ve written a great short story.

Hope you enjoyed the second half of the 12 tricks to short story characterization

Comment below and let me know what you think. Now go finish your story.

Short Story Characterization: 6 Tricks That’ll Make Your Character’s Ink Bleed Red

Advice on characterization in short stories can be vague and frustrating, but I promise that mine is as concrete as the streets you walk.

“Tricks” is really a euphemism for the advanced mystic-level writing advice you’re about to get. I (l)earned them through blood, sweat, and crippling mental anguish. Here’s my resume:

  • Twelve years of
  • writing workshop barbarism and
  • soul-vandalizing rejection from editors;
  • millions of words of useless story drafts, and
  • $100k of student loan debt

 

I bet you see a lot of on-writing articles that regurgitate the same beginner approaches to short story writing. I see them everywhere. And I always used to think to myself, “God, I wish someone would lay some advanced knowledge on me. I know the basics. Just give me the key to figuring this short story crap out.”

This is what I’ve said out to do for you, in a post that originally started at 12 “tricks,” but got slashed in half once I hit 3000 words. I know you ain’t got time for that.

So let’s get you off and running with six, and the next part of this two-part series will be up next week!

6 advanced-level tricks to characterization in short stories

1. Combine characters who serve the same function in your story

This often comes up in a short story workshop. As part of the short story as an art form, you should limit your scope as much as possible for the sake of overall concision. This includes the number of characters you put on the page.

Be wary of third wheel characters. A lot of amateur writers will put a character in the story that serves a function in the story that they falsely believe the antagonist cannot serve. A brief example from my own work.

In an early draft of my short story, “The Women in Grenada Part 2,” I had a character’s former boxing manager as an important character in the past who shaped the protagonist; then, I had a separate character who ran the illegal boxing ring that the main character took part in for money in the present. Then a brilliant woman in my weekly writing workshop said that it would be more powerful if I combined the former boxing manager and the illegal boxing ring hustler. They served the same purpose in the story, really, and in fact, this made the whole premise more emotionally resonant.

Look for opportunities like this in your short story. Remember that it’s all about condensing in short fiction, that less done well is more powerful in this form than having a lot of good elements.

2. Be careful about the timing and weight of characters who aren’t central to the story

In short fiction characters who get a lot of attention and get it early on are expected to develop and be the main character in a short story. Editors and readers will tell you without exception that red herring characters kill stories. An example might be starting a story focused on someone other than the point-of-view character.

Keep in mind that the word count wheelhouse is around 3000-5000 words right now in the current literary journal scene. You can’t breathe at this size. There’s good news though. Short stories should only have one POV character, until you’re good or big enough to smash that rule. So to be honest, all you need to do is not give supporting characters backstory, flowery descriptions, or excessive dialogue, unless it is crucial to the main character and their plot.

A second easy-to-follow trick here is avoiding name soup. Even you become expert at introducing characters, doling out too many first, last, and nicknames too rapidly, makes the reader feel as though their drowning in hot, boiling name soup. Consider ice-breakers back from college orientation: weak-kneed and self-conscious you meet a hundred people, and what, remembered ten names? The same goes here, but the reader is trying to determine which character they’re supposed to care about.

3. Have your character be interesting in the first place

I created a character/plot quadrant that explains a painfully simple way to ensure your characters are interesting.

T. S. Junior and his dank meme correlation quadrant between character and plot
Share this!

Yes, you could argue this is oversimplified a bit. But I swear that over the years this has come up time and time again in workshops. Writers create normal average Joes or Jills, and thrust them into normal average worlds. Or, indicated by the German Shepherds, they put loco characters in frenetic, nonsensical worlds.

 

 

I give this advice all of the time, and I’ll give it to you now. Readers are more likely to care about your character, and secondarily, your plot, if you use contrast here. It’s inherently interesting and full of conflict to see crazy people cope with normal settings, and to see normal people cope with crazy settings.

4. Don’t mistake idiosyncrasies for character depth

A dumb idiosyncrasy, in the context of short fiction, would be the high school quarterback who also loves reading the Romantic poets. Or, say, the young woman who trips ovaries every weekend at raves but has a Beanie Baby collection she tends to meticulously. If the story pivots on these personality quirks then of course that’s an exception. But if the only purpose, as I intend with my examples, is to show that the author wants the readers to understand these characters have a level of softness to them… it’s dumb.

While idiosyncrasies can be meaningful and great, it’s not where character depth comes from. For instance, if that quarterback doesn’t go to the rager after a big win because he has to and wants to go take care of his mother who’s on hospice with terminal cancer, and he reads her Keats because she loves that, that’s depth. Ditto, if the raver is so hungry for an escape because her bank account is overdrafted and she lets psychologists study the affects the drugs have on her brain for extra dough, and the only way to fall asleep at the clinical trials is cuddling her Beanie Babies.

A common mistake amateurs make is telling the reader about quirks, instead of showing real depth.

5. Minimalism is an artistic style not a copout for weak ass characters

For the longest time, I struggled with revising my short stories. In fact, I’ve had years where I’ve done no writing other than first drafts because I was overwhelmed and confused by the process of revision. When I was younger my solution to this was just cutting. I thought “every word in a short story has to matter” meant that omission was the mission.

It didn’t help that my favorite writers were minimalists like Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and at one point even Amy Hempel. The truth is that minimalists wrote that way because it was how they best got their stories across. It’s not for everyone. I learned the hard way that the iceberg theory only works if you actually have the part the Titanic runs into and the submerged part, not just floating ice cubes. I.e., you can’t just slice, dice, and assume that your reader is going to care enough to interpret subtext in your story.

Put another way: nobody cares about the subtext of what someone they don’t care about says.

 

6. You have to read literary journals.

If we’re all being honest, it’s pretty overwhelming how many aspiring writers who want to publish in literary journals do not read literary journals. Literary journals and the short form itself are tailored for the experimental and avante-garde. To give you a spot-on analogy, reading literary journals is the equivalent of “staying up on what the kids are up to these days” in pop culture and music for us old folks. You can’t expect to become a part of a sub-culture if you aren’t immersed in it.

The good news is that you can use submission sites like Duotrope or Submission Grinder, to narrow down the hordes of lit journals to your specific genre and/or style. From there, simply read the journals to determine if they’re really a good fit for your work. Many offer free stories, but hell, maybe submit to your one dream publication and support them.

Bonus: citing a specific story you loved in your submission query letter as the reason you are submitting your story to that journal goes over really well with editors. Even if you don’t get published that time, you’ll be creating a relationship or at least some name recognition for next time.

I have to cut this in half because your time is precious. Enough amazing short story characterization advice for one sitting

So the additional 6 tricks of the 12 will be coming next week!

What you do for now is re-evaluate your stories.

You should also totally re-read this and share it far and wide. I’d also love to hear if any of these might help you in the comments, or feel free to ask for clarifications if you’ve got questions.

 

 

Some Poor Taste Wartime Humor: Short Stories, final update (I promise)

The paperback edition is available on Amazon should any beautiful souls wish to spend $10 on little old me.

If you did that you would automatically be my biggest fan and would get #Freebies4Life.

In any case, I’ll be running some off the press and trying to organize a Boston and/or Providence event at which I can read, shake hands, and sell some paperback editions for only $5!

Here’s a link.

T.S. Junior’s short story collection “Some Poor Taste Wartime Humor” is now available!

Some Poor Taste Wartime Humor is available for eyeballs worldwide!

Good morning everyone! The birdsong’s a bit sweeter this morning, the colder winds of the coming autumn making the dew on the grass shiver, and all of the children waiting for the school bus are laughing and smiling…

Because my short story collection with ten, thrilling, dark stories is now available in the Kindle Store!

cropped-some-poor-taste-wartime-humor-embed.jpg

Click here to buy on Amazon

No, really, click–it’s only $1.99!

Cover Art for T.S. Junior’s “Some Poor Taste Wartime Humor”

 

Here’s a first look at the cover art for T.S. Junior’s short story collection, Some Poor Taste Wartime Humor.

image

My apologies for the low image quality here and the sun glare. I was on the go, working out in the sun. But pretty cool, right? This image captures one of the central themes in Some Poor Taste Wartime Humor‘s ten stories; the characters walk the line, which I call the “tightrope” up top, so to speak, trying to exercise self-control and lead normal lives and failing miserably.

If you can relate to that–as I can–you’ll like these stories.

I hope your as excited for next week’s book launch as I am.

Let me know in the comments if you think Some Poor Taste Wartime Humor’s cover art is clickable.

 

T.S. Junior signing on, short story collection, “Some Poor Taste Wartime Humor” coming next week

You are going to love my first book, a short story collection called, “Some Poor Taste Wartime Humor: Short Stories.”

Here’s a first look at the description:

These ten stories from emerging writer of dark and suspenseful fiction, T.S. Junior depict alienated men and women walking the tightrope between bearable sanity and utter oblivion. In “Son of a Ruined Patriot,” a son recounts the nightmarish experience of being kidnapped by his Iraq and Afghanistan veteran father, a man lethally obsessed with conspiracy theories, and held in a bunker.  A character in the two part story, “The Women in Grenada,” struggles with a love he took for granted as a young serviceman; years later, he makes money as an underground boxer, embracing brutality to afford his mother’s medical bill while he tries to find the love he lost.

Other stories chronicle a rundown woman who has the time of her life pushing a stranger off a ledge (“The Well-Balanced Flamingo Motel”), a pair of ex-military men who stumble across a wicked biological experiment being conducted in a post-Apocalyptic Boston (“The Greenies”), a working class father from Florida feeling helpless as he’s faced with a broken leg and the impending homelessness of his family mid-2008 Sub-Prime Mortgage Crisis (“The Character They’ll Have”), and a husband who plays a prank on his suicidal wife in the early days following the outbreak of WWIII (“Some Poor Taste Wartime Humor”).

The emotional cores of these stories resonate in the current moment because we all sense that life as we know it has become fragile enough to shatter, and as a result, American paranoia and gloom has replaced blind optimism about the future as the new normal. Some Poor Taste Wartime Humor is equal parts dire warning and pressure release.

I’m excited to share ten diverse stories with you. This is over four years of work collected here, in what’s hopefully going to be the first book you read to usher in Autumn. In fact, I think these dark stories are best read as the heat and sun fade to cold nights and naked trees.

I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I’m thinking about doing a limited print edition of the eBook, for My First Fans, who download the book next week when it is free and write a review!

Thanks in advance! The cover art for T.S. Junior’s Some Poor Taste Wartime Humor will be in my next post!

Let me know in the comments if you think Some Poor Taste Wartime Humor: Short Stories sounds interesting.