The Art of Characterisation

There’s a distinct art to creating believable characters, an art which can be further divided into creating ones for short stories and those for novels. If you like, short story characters can be thought of as brief but telling sketches, whilst those created for novels are the fully painted portraits. Necessarily, writing characters for the shorter tales is often harder, as the author needs to outline them through words, actions and speech in as brief a space as possible without interrupting the flow of the story, and without exceeding a comfortable word-count. Obviously, in a novel, there’s considerably more leverage and more space, enabling the writer to sketch out the character initially and then flesh them out as they build up the story over the course of the plot.

I once remember seeing, many many years ago, a short black and white film of Pablo Picasso painting a sketch of a bull on glass – it was the greatest exposition of drawing character in as few lines as possible ever, and, extrapolating it to writing, could be taken as an object lesson on how to a capture character so economically. There were no extraneous or distracting details: he drew it quickly and precisely. It wasn’t just that it looked like a bull, it WAS a bull. Everything we know of bulls was there, in just those few lines. Picasso also drew a rooster on paper, this time less realistically and more abstractly, but again it was a masterclass in brevity and in pinning down the essence of a rooster. Looking at it, I could hear the rooster crowing loudly.

This is what writers need to do – draw out the essential characteristics of the figures who people their story and make them entirely real, in short sharp sketches, and without any unnecessary wastage. In a short story no-one wants to read thick slabs of disruptive description, so supplement brief verbal depictions with pertinent actions and modes of speech to help fill them out. Even in a short story there is ample space in which to do that. People want action, to know what’s happening and how the characters are reacting to the situation. In essence, what the characters do when confronted by whatever it is that’s happening to them should be enough to tell the reader exactly what kind of people those characters are.

Doing this could mean the difference between writing a 10,000 word tale instead of the 5,000 word one called for. Sure, we want our readers to identify with the people we create on the page – but describing everything about your main protagonists will only get in the way of that. Plus any good editor will point this out to you: no matter how good the story is, if the flow is impeded by unnecessary descriptive passages he/she will ask that you take them out or rewrite them. The temptation is always there when you start out writing to try and describe every minute detail, but, as you hone your craft, however, you learn that not everything need be delineated, only the absolute essentials. The art, for the good writer, is in knowing what those essentials are and just putting enough in to help things along. Experience, and continual writing, will help you learn that.

But, if you want the space to flesh out your characters more, I suggest you that you go straight for the novel instead…. =)


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