Hey, What’s She Doing? Developing Character In The Short Story.

The Illuminated Crowd, sculpture by Raymond MasonJust had two stories accepted, and finally, finally finished the final draft of another story. Feeling pretty chipper (as in ‘OK, now I know what I’m doing’), I re-opened a story I’ve been wanting to finish since July 2012.

So much for thinking I know what I’m doing! I’ve no idea how to get into this story. As I’ve mentioned before, I love first drafts. The next stage is like cracking a nut.

Some nuts just don’t crack easily. You might have a lousy nut-cracker or the shell is too thick and resistant. So you try it from this angle, then that, get out the hammer. Some nuts refuse to open and you have to toss them away. But, if you’re lucky, finally a hairline crack appears, and now there’s a chance of getting to the kernel.

“God gives the nuts, but he does not crack them.” Franz Kafka

When I was doing my MFA at Lesley University, my Advisor Brian Bouldrey wrote on one of my first drafts: “Now you’ll have to re-learn what you know.” At the time I had no idea what he was talking about.

But I’ve learned he’s right. There are some things I seem to have to re-learn with each story.

I woke up this morning, realizing the problem with this particular story: I have no idea what Edie, my main character, has done.

It’s not that things don’t happen in the story. They do. But what has set these happenings in motion? Was it something my protagonist did? Something she didn’t do?

That’s the thing I have to re-learn every time I sit down to re-work a first draft. My characters can’t just stand there and observe. They must DO something.

Finding out what my main character has done to provoke the situation – or worsen it, try to stop it, or avoid it – is my way of beginning to discover who the character is, what s/he really wants or fears. What’s your way?

So this morning as I write, I’m scouring my draft for that hairline crack I can tease open – what HAS Edie done? Why’s she got that hammer in her hand? Surely she’s not going to… No, she can’t, she mustn’t… No, no, please don’t…


2 thoughts on “Hey, What’s She Doing? Developing Character In The Short Story.

  1. This is like what happens when you meet someone new and find out things (and don’t find out things) about them. One day, something happens and it jolts the relationship.
    “Who is this person?” you wonder. Do you confront them, dig deeper, watch them surreptitiously, turn away? Walk away, far away? Or are you drawn in, hopelessly in love?
    You’re right, developing a character is full of surprises, and all the while, of course, it’s you yourself, the writer and human, who is becoming transparent, or at least, translucent. Cracked open, as you put it. Or as Leonard Cohen might explain it: “That’s how the light gets in.”


    • Yes, you’re so right.

      “One day, something happens” – that’s the kicker, isn’t it? What happens? Who made it happen? Was it something the character said or did? Even if my protagonist wasn’t the cause of the ‘happening’, what I love is when she makes the situation worse!

      Love the Leonard Cohen “That’s how the light gets in.”

      Thanks for joining the discussion!


What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s