Monday, November 29, 2010

The Short Story for the Editor, Part One: the Characters.

Let's gain for a moment the importance of the story at hand. If this story is merely a recount of old times, then it's not a story as much as it's an anecdote, and it isn't fiction at all. In any story, we readers still want description both of scene and character. We want to feel the sunny day on our faces, and we want to know what the library smells like. But when it comes to the memorability of the story it's the characters and their journey that we remember.

During my days at summer camp, during the latter half of the 1990s the Sunday night campfire skit I loved the most was modeled after a joke:
First Person: What're you reading?
Second Person: White Pages.
First Person: The White Pages? How's that?
Second Person: Great list of characters but not a lot of plot.
Yet it's true, the White Pages (Do they still print them? I know the Yellow Pages turn up at an alarming rate) are a great list of characters. And every one of them has a story. And each story had the essentials of good fiction: they all have back stories, desires, dimension, and obstacles. But as just a name in the middle of a long list of names, they are essentially meaningless.

Your characters too, if left flat, two dimensional, are just a name like those in the White Pages.

When we talk about a short story, or even fiction in general, I think of a character driven plot. Characters drive the story from beginning through the middle to the end. Without a character, or some entity, we readers cannot relate, and then a short story it is not. It doesn't matter if the characters writers chose are woman, man, beast or bug, a character we relate to makes the experience of the read worthwhile.

As this study of characters begins, let's look at some we may already know.

Gregor Samsa of Franz Kafka's “The Metamorphosis” comes to mind instantly. As I read the trials and events of this story, I feel like I can relate to all the characters: the father and mother, the cook, sister and the chief clerk, and this is not as much as Gregor Samsa himself. Some people may think the reason why “The Metamorphosis” has endured, or why it's successful as a story is because of the outlandish event, a man turning into a giant insect. Whereas that may be true, it's poor Gregor Samsa which I find so compelling. Here's a man, a traveler who has been in charge of family finances as well as paying off the debts of his bankrupt father and now he's turned into a bug. The point is, we know Gregor Samsa by name and we have a relationship with him. Without Gregor Samsa's back story, these family relations, and his past and current situations, we're bound to lose interest in a mere insect story.

Here are some names you may or may not know:

Muriel, Sybil and Seymour Glass in Salinger's “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” Fuzz Littler in Vonnegut's “Fubar” from the 2009 collection Look at the Birdie. Debby from Mary Gaitskill's “Secretary.”

What do these four stories have in common other than being four of my favorite short stories? They all are driven by their characters.

For the writers of fiction and the construction of fictional short stories, I recommend reading as many as possible. Those who work in genre fiction: sci fi, fantasy; romance, westerns; crime, etc. I think the rules are the same. Read short stories. Make your characters real.

Breathing instant life into your characters:
1.Give them back story:
Gregor Samsa has taken over family finances, has worked as clerk, thought about sending sister to school. He has saved money, doesn't go out and wants then and now to be free.
2.Make them multi-dimensional:
Seymour Glass means something different to all three female characters in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” He is admired by Sybil, the lover to Muriel and the object of scorn of Muriel's mother. We learn and form opinions about this character because of the way others see him.
3.Give the character a tremendous obstacle to overcome:
Gaitskill's Debby has to overcome paralyzing psychological shortcomings and lack of work experience in “Secretary.” Later she must overtake rejection in the name of love.
4.Next give your characters desire, hopefully desire that can be fulfilled:
Fuzz Littler is such a pathetic man, a below average worker, and all around boring guy. But when he gets the attention of a pretty girl, we want him to win, to gain confidence, get the girl, get some. Vonnegut doesn't let Fuzz down in “Fubar” even if he doesn't let the poor lout exactly win.

As you begin your short stories, the ones written with your magazine editor in mind first begin enhancing your characters: back story, dimension, obstacles and desire (fulfillment). With these thoughts in mind, your characters will have more facets. Your use of this along with the dialogue, action and description is the next step in character design. Good luck and happy writing.

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