Creating Characters for Short Stories

Break the habit of always writing about yourself.

When you first started writing, your teachers probably told you to stick to subjects you know well. It makes sense, then, that you would intuitively use yourself as the protagonist of your stories. Maybe you don’t write about your whole self, but turn aspects of your personality into characters.

To me, I’m the easiest person in the world to use a character, because I already know myself intimately. There came a point in my life, though, when my stories seemed repetitive and a little stale. What was I doing wrong? Maybe nothing, but I knew I’d have to start doing something differently, or I’d be stuck in a rut forever. I came to the conclusion that my problem had a lot to do with the characters I’d been using. My mother and I are interesting people for at least half a dozen stories, but who isn’t interesting enough for that?

I needed to expand my range of characters and create new scenarios for my imaginary characters to live out. If you’re taking the time to read this article, you’re probably looking to break out of a character rut, too. My first step toward becoming a better short story writer was to stop writing about myself, and maybe yours should be, too.

I’ll be the first to admit it-writing myself into my stories was a hard habit to break. It takes a lot more work to create a believable person from scratch than it does to just stick yourself into the story. Instead of asking myself what I would do in a particular situation, I was forcing myself to make up whole new moral perspectives for virtual strangers.

Taking yourself off the page is an uphill battle, but worth the time and creative energy as you find your range of talent increasing. Not only will these exercises make you a more versatile writer, but you’ll also find a renewed excitement in the act of creation.

Find models for new characters.

If not writing about yourself seems painful at first (and it probably will), a good way to start coming up with new characters is to use the people you know as resources. Your best friend, your brother, your fifth grade teacher, or your favorite cashier at the video store are all good people to start mining for material. After all, you probably know enough about them to make them protagonists without too much of an imaginative stretch. If you feel comfortable, interview your new chosen character about what she would do in certain situations, her relationships with others, and her general outlook on life.

Now that you’ve picked a new protagonist, you need to actually start writing from that perspective instead of your own. Here are some exercises to get you started.

Exercise #1: Write about a day in the life of your best friend, from her perspective. Start in the morning from the time she gets up and keep going until she goes to bed.

Exercise #2: Pick someone you know who works in retail or food service. Imagine that person gets into an argument with a customer. Write a dialogue detailing the exchange, and pay special attention to how your chosen person reacts to and deals with the situation.

Exercise #3: Choose a member of your family that you know very well, but is very different from you. Now put that person in a traumatizing situation and write about what happens. Your family member could get mugged on the subway, experience the loss of a pet, or become very ill. The situation is up to you, but the goal is to practice writing about how someone else would deal with pain, loss, stress, or humiliation.

Create back stories to add depth.

Now that you’ve practiced writing from other perspectives, it’s time to start creating entirely fictional characters. When you make up an entirely new people to write about, you need to create life stories for them. A short story usually only deals with one aspect of a character’s life over a relatively short period of time, but it’s important to know how your characters became the people they are when you write about them.

You may never actually include the back story you create for a character in the story you end up writing, and that’s okay. The purpose of the back story is to give depth and consistency to a character’s actions. The more you know about your character before you start writing, the easier it will be to make clear decisions about how he moves through his daily life and reacts to the things around him.

The following are short exercises to get you started creating characters and their back stories.

Exercise #1: Visit a local diner or coffee house (someplace quiet where you can sit for awhile) and pick person out of the crowd who looks interesting to you. Study how that person interacts with others, her demeanor, and her appearance. Describe where that person is in her life right now. Is she happy or sad, well off or poor, lonely or surrounded by friends? Does she treat the wait staff respectfully, or is she snooty? Brainstorm several reasons why she might appear the way she does. Did her husband just pass away after fifty years of marriage? Is her only child about to leave for college? Did she just win the lottery?

Exercise #2: Now that you’ve found a new character, make a chronological list of important events in that person’s life. From there, make a list of that person’s likes and dislikes, personal beliefs, and important friends. Is this person religious? Is this person generally an optimist or a pessimist? Does this person remain calm under pressure, or does she have a terrible temper? Once you’ve made up this person’s life story and a list of important things to that person, the answers to the bigger questions should come fairly easily.

Exercise #3: This works particularly well for writing historical fiction. Go to a local cemetery and wander around until you find a particularly interesting headstone. From the epitaph, you should be able to create a rough story of what that person’s life was like. Go through the same process as described in Exercise #2, and you have your first historical character.

Revisit yourself from time to time.

Now that you’ve effectively learned how to create new characters for short stories, you don’t need to always write about yourself or from your own perspective. Chances are, though, you will probably want to from time to time. That’s good, because now that you’ve expanded your range, the characters surrounding your alter ego in your stories will become richer and more realistic. Here are some exercises to help you reinsert yourself into your stories.

Exercise #1: Write a story about something that happened between you and someone you know, but from their perspective. How does that person perceive you in the particular situation you describe, and how do your actions cause your friend to react in certain ways?

Exercise #2: Write a story about a new relationship. Alternate between your perspective and your new significant other’s perspective on the progression of your relationship.

Exercise #3: Write a story about a random encounter you have with a stranger that changes his outlook on life. Write from the stranger’s perspective, and give yourself only a brief cameo appearance.

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