From Out The Character — short story workshop

Short story workshop, part however many  4? 5?

Sorry to be so late with this. I’d started to explain that you can’t have character without plot or plot without character. That you can’t take your beautiful character and display him to the readers, and make the readers give a good d*mn without showing your character in action.

Not that writers haven’t tried. I’ve read a lot of newbies having Perfect Princess Pattycakes (who is sometimes a guy) wandering through the novel while everyone talks about how Perfect and Pattycakey she is, even as she does nothing. Just her mere presence causes problems to be solved around her.

Yep, her name is Mary Sue. Don’t be Mary Sue.

The thing is that this is most important for novels. (Are we doing one of these for novels, afterwards? With emphasis on the differences between short stories and novels? You command, I obey.)

Short stories, are… a different beast.

Look, I’ll level with you. While you should still have a plot and things actually happen, it is perfectly possible to write a short story when ALL you have is a character.

Okay, maybe not ALL you have. It would really help if you also had Bradbury’s facility with words. (Younger son, the inarticulate one, seems to while writing fantasy. It’s very odd. Like there’s a were writer who lives in his brain.)

Given that and a fascinating enough character you can write a short story in which the character reminisces, or moans or sets fire to his own hair.

If you have the ability to do that and make the story interesting, what are you doing here? Go make with the typytypy.

(Mind you, even that level of ability won’t save you in a novel, though you could write an episodic novel with perfect little character gems, right? Sort of. Kind of. Sideways. If you do don’t tell them I sent you – you’ll win so many awards.)

For most of us, even in a short story, there must be some sort of plot to make it… you know, a story.

But you can start with the character (weirdly for short stories I usually don’t. I usually start with a character for novels. For short stories I start with a situation. Most of the time the character appears after that. If he/she doesn’t, I play it by ear and plug in generic character for plot, with one or two interesting quirks.) and interrogate him to get a story.

By “interrogate” I don’t mean you should interview him/her. Sure you can do that, but if you do that, often the interview becomes the thing.

I interviewed a character once, for a deeper understanding of what was eating him, but the thing is, though I got to know him better, the things I got to know didn’t fuel the plot which still had to come from somewhere else.

If you’re a character writer, the character is there in your head already and interviewing him with nonsense about his favorite desert and his most embarrassing moment in childhood won’t help you. These were things he would have given you anyway, given time and the need to know. You’re just cluttering yourself with a bunch of facts you don’t need. It sort of reminds me when ebooks were new and editors (ah!) said stupid sh*t at cons, like “We can have information linked right from the page. So, if you mention the Alps, there will be a tab the reader can click in and find out how tall they are and everything about it.” Because you know, in a novel, description (what we choose to tell and what we choose to withhold, how we tell it, where we put the emphasis) isn’t part of the story tellers art at all, right? It’s just the imparting of information. (Good thing these people were gatekeepers, right? Look at their brilliant understanding of the narrative art.)

So, don’t do that. Instead, if you have the character in our head, ask yourself “where does this character hurt?” That is, what does the character want more than anything, what’s in his way, and (if possible) why does he want it that badly. What causes this near unbearable craving? Or “What is the character’s greatest regret and grief?” (For another type of character, of course.) What can he/she do about it.

Again “Where does the character hurt?”

The nature of the wanting or the regret or the pain or the longing, or all of those might tell you what your story is.


“The thing I wanted most of all was to kill Joe.” Is probably a mystery. As is “I wish I’d been there when Joe was killed and could have stopped the bastard. I wasn’t, I coldn’t, but I can go and find his murderer.”

“Ever since I was little I dreamed of going to the moon. My mom gave me a bunch of clockworks and told me it was a piece of the sputnik which had been to outer space. I slept with it clutched in my hand while I was battling small pox.” Is either science fiction or the beginning of my autobiography.

“It was the elves that did it. We though we had a problem with the rabbits, but no. I was there when the elves came. I wish I’d believed in them and could have done something about it.” Is probably fantasy. Might even contain exploding elves.

But Sarah, you say, what if the character isn’t telling me what his greatest fear/pain is? How do I figure out a story for this character.

Well, the reason I started with the “greatest” fear and pain is that short stories are of necessity more focused. So you need to find the big brush and paint with that, so it can be seen even in postage stamp (okay, it’s a bad analogy. Shut up.)

Let’s suppose you have a character who is just telling you what is bothering him right then. It’s possible that what you have is actually a novel (you won’t know till you figure out what his big fear/pain is) but you can at least start looking at it and bringing it out to play.

If the character is afraid of the dark, putting him in a spaceship where the lights fail should produce some interesting results. The same way, if you know your character absolutely refuses to believe in anything supernatural. Drop him head first into fairyland and then see what happens.

Yes, it’s torture. Well, what do/did you torture people for? Information, right? Story people aren’t any different.

Chances are the story that results from this won’t be very coherent and you’ll have to clean it up at the end. Short stories are all a matter of proportion. (More on that later.) But you’ll have something.

Just remember – don’t have your character born on page one. Even in a short story, if your character has no past, chances are he has no future either.

And – don’t have the entire plot based on running away. Yes, you can get away with this in a short story (The Littlest Nightmare. COFF.) BUT if it’s more than a joke or a vignette and if you’re going to go more than three thousand words on the outside, you need something more than that. Find out what makes your character stand and fight. Then do it.


Next week: Location, location, location.



  1. Right now I’m struggling (in my mind not on paper) with a character. Part of the problem is that I’m trying to throw him into a situation where his only real response seems to be “lay down and die” or “accept the situation and go through it”.

    The situation (roughly) is that he’s not the “plain old human” he thinks he is and that he’s beginning to change into the “human plus” that he actually is.

    It would be a “rough ride” even if he grew up knowing this would happen but it going to be rougher since he didn’t know.

    Thus his only choice seems to be “kill himself” or accept the help/advice of a man he just met who has gone through the change. (Note, the man is a good guy so his help/advice is good.)

    1. I realize that Sarah just said that running away was bad… but I’d think that running away would be one of the things he considers doing. Or to try to run *to* someplace where he feels help would be found.

      1. That may be a clue to how to “fix” the story. Right now, help is available so all he has to do is accept the help. So the story could be “how does he find out what’s happening to him and learn who to go to for help”. Right now he’s working on a farm in the 1950’s of his world. (It’s “our world” with a major change in the 1860’s). Got to think about this. [Smile]

        1. You said that “help” was a good guy, so the help was good… but does the kid know that? Anyone “not from here” would be viewed at least somewhat suspiciously in a 1950’s farm community.

          I’m sitting here thinking of who would have been living in my home town in the 1950’s and one of the obvious things is WW2 vets. You’ve got a very weird combination of insularity and men who’ve been to Paris and China or maybe both, who never talk about it and who everyone understands that a few came home damaged.

          1. Good point to you and Sarah about “can he trust and accept the help”. Especially when you consider that him and his mother have been “on the road” all of his life. He would have a problem with trust. More thinking to do.

            Oh, while this is the “1950’s”, there was a major event worldwide in the 1860’s that means world history is vastly different than our history.

  2. @drak, that could be the story there. Which dies he choose? Oblivion or does he find the courage to face that kind of change and accept that it might not, in the end, be a bad thing.

    I now have a short story in my head (or at least a character) who is very adamant that he has no past, and given his job (which he hasn’t told me about, but is violent) no future. I may have to write this story. What do I know that he doesn’t (which suddenly gas him very nervous. ).

    1. In my character’s case, he does know about the type of “human plus” that he’s becoming and they aren’t considered evil/monsters in his world. He had read adventure stories with this type as the heroes.

      His problem is that his first experience of the change is when he uncontrollably begins to gorge himself with the raw meat of an animal he just killed and afterwards realizes that he would have done the same thing to a human (ie gorging himself on human meat).

      The change involves massive changes to his body which requires food and this gorging would hard to take for an adult but he’s just sixteen.

      If he had grown up among others of his true kind, the adults would have known that he was about to begin the change and would have isolated him with plenty of meat. Obviously, he would have not been surprised by the “first gorging”.

  3. If you think what puppies do to shoes is unspeakable, you’ve never had a shoggothling gallumphing around the house. But it’s nothing compared to the nightmare of housebreaking.

  4. If you’re a character writer, the character is there in your head already and interviewing him with nonsense about his favorite desert and his most embarrassing moment in childhood won’t help you.

    Was handed this as an assignment for a creative writing class as a sophomore in HS. I was stumped, because — why would I care? (Yes, I know about character depth, I’m a huge fan of character driven stories. And if it doesn’t drive the story I don’t care what characters like for desert.) The teacher was pretty good, and she was certainly earnest, but I think she was working out of somebody’s curriculum and this was a Method.

    Are we doing one of these for novels, afterwards?

    Yes. I’d say please, but then I’d lose the command voice and what might happen with the obeying?

    I usually start with a character for novels. For short stories I start with a situation.

    So far, and going back to all the stories I’ve told myself in the echoing chambers of my own skull, I seem to have characters roughly imagined and a glimmer of a situation. But I can’t really understand a situation until I see what different characters do in response. Then things clarify. Or I’ll see/hear/read about a situation and one of my character ideas will plop down with a “here’s what I’d do” scenario and I can start to build the edges of the story.

    What I haven’t managed is driving a story without “knowing” the character in rough detail beforehand. I learn stuff about them as the story goes, but I haven’t really been able to pick a situation (beyond the barest outline) and run with it using a character stand-in.

    Canted brain. Such fun.

  5. What’s the difference between a “short story” and a “novella”? I just read Sarah’s The Big Ship and the Wise Old Owl. I would have called it a “short story”.

    I liked it, by the way, but the timing is awfully convenient (all I can say without spoilers).

    1. I wrote a blog post on that after Sarah said my short story and novel ideas were probably all novellas.

      The short version…
      Flash fiction: less than 1000 words.
      Short fiction: 1,000 to 7,500 words.
      Novelette: 7,500 to 17,500 words.
      Novella: 17,500 to 40 or 50 or 60,000 words.
      Novel: Whatever is left.

      Mostly I got those numbers from contest and award specifications. The big differences are in where a novel starts. Mystery genre awards split short stories into “short short” and “long short” right about in the middle at 4k.

      Analog submission guidelines say “We prefer lengths between 2,000 and 7,000 words for shorts, 10,000-20,000 words for novelettes,…”

      I think that for practical purposes, “novelettes” are considered short stories… just long ones. But you notice that there’s 3k missing in the middle there! This was my biggest problem in trying to research this. Is 8.5K words a short story or a novelette? Who knows!

  6. I start with a situation with a character in it.

    Where I tend to get stuck is usually trying to make the situation actually work. What I’m working on now… the “situation” was great and it set up a bunch of problems to be solved that are great and I’m writing away and suddenly realize that I’ve introduced a logical error. The situation depended on the crashed (set down lightly but entirely damaged) spaceship captain *not* being able to communicate with her command. And then I’ve got her command using the radio to contact the new owners of the ship… and I write a bit more… and I’m like… waitaminute.

    So I really need to go back and have the com destroyed… *or* the actions of the captain need to have been a conspiracy with her command, which might be far more interesting if I can just figure out what they thought they were going to accomplish.

    In any case, I can usually get characters to do what I want them to do, but the really neat picture of the cool-oh situation often doesn’t seem to want to cooperate.

    1. It could be spotty communications, or the radio finally got fixed, or we got out of the mysterious ruins that block com, or the crazy radio guy finally learned enough English to trust you to talk on the radio while he listens, or….

  7. “Daddy died before I was born. We’re not sure how long before I was born, we just know they found his body when they were excavating for university science building where he accidentally invented time travel, and that was nearly a hundred years ago.

    Mommy was there when the accident happened, six months pregnant with me. It had a pretty strong effect on my development, and I’m just now learning how strong.”

          1. Ah! Punctuation. With a period it seemed really tepid.

            Mimi Woo is a minor character in the Dr. Mauser series, and she has a certain following. (Okay, one guy in Malaysia who does fan art) and the idea of doing her backstory in first person struck me recently.

  8. Rowan is very moral and patriotic/nationalistic, but loves his immoral brother, King Edmund, very much. He has to walk a constant tightrope between fulfilling his duty to see his country survive and prosper, while not upsetting Edmund too much.

    There is nothing he can do to stop his brother’s descent into depravity, and he privately grieves for his brother. His personal code of conduct was taught to him by his father. “God before Ilkadumia [his country]. Ilkadumia before family. Family before self.”

    If you are familiar with Byzantine history, Edmund is based on Michael III ‘the Drunkard’ and Rowan is loosely based on his uncle Bardas the Caesar.

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