Stories don’t come into being until the character gets a life — Steven Schoen
About Character | How true. And how hard for the beginning writer to understand. I speak from experience. When I first started writing I wanted to write stories — you know Stories about something. I had something to say, goddammit! Write enough stories attempting to say something and from time to time it works, but mostly it doesn’t.
Essential Progression | Don’t write stories to say something. If you want to “say something,” write an essay instead not a short story. Short fiction is about character (plotless or otherwise). David Mamet, playwright and novelist, says a story, “is the essential progression of incidents that occur to the hero in pursuit of his one goal.” Definitive: “the” hero and “one” goal.
The essential progression here is illustrated through character, the main character often referred to as the protagonist. Make this character interesting by making them believable and by believable I mean real and by real I mean the character will not be perfect.
Three Steps | First off, give your character something to do and want — a desire, a goal. Something. But don’t make whatever they want easy to get. Make it hard. Make the character struggle. Secondly, and the best way to produce this kind of conflict is to give your character some traits — good and bad. The traits can be anything from what they value or find important, to their bad habits or flaws. Finally, pit your character against other characters whose values, good and bad traits, conflict with the main character. This causes conflict and friction, which is what you’re after.
Three Cs | One way to think about character and this essential progression is through the Three Cs — conflict, choice and consequence.
Conflict arises when a character does not get what they want. This can take many shapes (internal, personal, or institutional/cultural), but most of the time it’s about what the character expects and what actually transpires. When expectations are not met, there’s a gap in that essential progression and characters must therefore make a choice. As with any choice, once a decision has been made there will be consequences.
Emotional Connection | What makes your character yours is the array of desires, values and traits you give the character, and with those how they come to react in situations where those desires are thwarted; their values threatened or their good or bad trait is brought to a head.
This is to ensure an emotional connection between the reader and your story.
This is the beating heart of writing contemporary fiction. It is fundamental.
More later, but for now: Write your stories by first knowing the who, and the what will follow. Who is this story about? is far more important that what is it I’m trying to say?
Create character through conflict, which produces a need to choose, which leads to consequences and you will have what Schoen says in The Truth about Fiction is that connection, the emotional connection between reader and the story that makes your readers want to become your character.