Lord of the Rings’ Gandalf, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Memorable characters are at the crux of good prose, from screenwriting to literary fiction to fairy tales, and flash is no exception. In longer fiction, the author can gradually introduce the reader to the protagonist, antagonist and any number of ancillary characters. However, flash’s 1000-word cutoff forces writers to quickly develop unique, complex and relatable characters in a short space.
Here are some tips to consider in developing strong characters in flash or any kind of fiction:
1. Play with archetypes.
Most readers are familiar with the conventional literary archetypes, such as the hero, sidekick, villain, doppelganger, mentor, damsel in distress, martyr, etc. Other archetypes don’t have a name (or at least one I know of) such as the young misfit who discovers a secret life they never knew they had (read: Harry Potter) or the overbearing parent living vicariously through his or her child. Some characters fit into specific subtypes. Blogger Jessica Khoury identifies two emerging YA female protagonist archetypes she calls “dark” and “pale” that serve to distinguish female protagonists who are jaded, independent, and knowledgeable (dark) from those who are naive, sheltered and idealistic (pale.)
Some of literature’s best characters blur the lines of these archetypes. For example, the antihero, such as Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, is a central character who lacks the positive qualities of a hero. Many characters in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and the corresponding Game of Thrones TV show, display attributes of classic fantasy archetypes, but act in ways that flaunt these conventions, leading to complex and interesting characterization.
Consider the archetypes you encounter in your reading. Should your character fall into a familiar archetype, consider creating circumstances in which that character suffers consequences as a result of their role and is led to change. That being said…
2. Challenge your characters.
Steve Almond defines plot as “the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires.” He goes even further to say “it is your sworn duty [as writers] to send your characters barreling into the danger of their own desires.”
Conflict relies almost exclusively on characters being challenged because of their beliefs, dreams, perceived limitations and/or anxieties. In flash, writers may not get enough time to show the full resolution of a character’s struggles, or perhaps the natural end to a story is one without resolution. Thus, it is especially important for the writer to begin the piece at the point of tension putting the character up against conflict as soon as possible.
Justin Lawrence Doughterty’s “Monsters” begins with an old woman saying she has monsters. The story instantly puts the woman up against her fears, which allows the reader to learn about the woman herself. “Her fingers sweat; she gripped that crucifix tight. She offered me tequila. She drank plenty herself. You could smell it in her sweat.”
Consider your characters’ dreams and fears and what circumstances would challenge them the most — characters in peril make for effective storytelling.
3. Draw upon your own life experience.
Almond says, “the path to the truth runs through shame. It involves, as its central moving part, self-revelation.” Almond doesn’t mean that every story should serve as a writer’s confessional, but rather that personal conflict and struggle make for realistic and powerful fiction. He encourages writers to write about their most embarrassing, depressing, or deplorable thoughts and feelings, saying that “if [a] story is any good it’s only because we’ve colored it with the dark ink of our own freakish secrets.”
In “S” by Ray Morrison, a man tries to talk his father down from a ledge, and his father is in a Superman suit. “He does turn then, and I can see how ridiculous he looks in that Superman getup of his. A flash of anger races through me at how embarrassing this will be for me if he goes through with the jump. But this is quickly replaced by the shame of having such a thought.” These guilty thoughts make the character much more interesting, and transcend the familiar trope of talking someone off a ledge.
For this, I recommend a familiar prompt: make a list of the things you absolutely cannot write because your loved ones would kill you, because you would be humiliated for life, or whatever reason. Then, write a story in which a character struggles with that same guilty thought or desire. Characters who grapple with real-life faults are the characters who leap off the page and remain in the hearts and minds of readers for the long run.
4. Utilize different kinds of characterization.
Characters are developed in any number of ways. Of course, there are direct and indirect characterization, but a resource from ReadWriteThink.org defines five other types of characterization using the acronym STEAL: speech, thoughts, effects on others, actions, looks. I would also add environmental characterization to the list, or the role that the character’s home, work space, car, or natural environment play in defining them. In Ashley Cowger’s “The Things We Take and The Things We Leave Behind,” two characters are set apart by the things they pack:
His boxes are skimpy and there are only three of them, each labeled with a number that corresponds to a detailed list in his wallet… My boxes are stuffed, bowing out at their cardboard walls and overflowing at their tops…He says I am materialistic. I say he is heartless.
Utilizing various modes of characterization allows for the development of richer, more complex characters in a short amount of time. For example, if a married man brings flowers home to his wife every single day (action) but is constantly sizing up other women (thoughts), this is a possible source of conflict. If a human resources employee boasts a positive work environment (speech) but can’t find a seat in the office lunchroom (effects on others) or comes to work with a black eye (looks), that might make for an interesting character.
5. Allow characters to surprise you.
The mindset of writing characters in order to say something greater about the world is a dangerous one and can often result in stories that sound pedantic or preachy. Most writers begin a story with a particular plot and characters in mind, but the reader inherently plays a role in how the character is developed. It is important to hold the story loosely and allow characters to surprise you and lead you where they (or the readers) want to go.
Almond, Steve. This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey: Essays and Stories.
“Archetypes.” Literary Devices, n.d. Web. 17 Nov 2014. http://literarydevices.net/archetype/
“Defining Characterization.” ReadWriteThink.org, n.d. Web. 16 Nov 2014. http://www.readwritethink.org/files/resources/lesson_images/lesson800/Characterization.pdf
Khoury, Jessica. “Female Archetypes We Haven’t Talked About: Dark Versus Pale Beauties.” http://jnkhoury.blogspot.com/2013/09/female-archetypes-we-havent-talked.html
NanoFiction, Volume 6, Number 2.
- Not Myself: On Writing Other Perspectives -
- “Lessons for the Genres” -
- “Don’t Tell Me What to Think or How to Feel: Avoiding Didacticism” -
- A “Real Job”: The Legitimacy of Creative Writing -
- “Instant Gratification: Sharing Your Creative Work” -
- “The Overly Sensitive Writer” -
- Be Yourself: Memorable Characters in Flash -
- Letting the Small Magnify the Big: Symbols in Flash -