Characters, Characters Everywhere

Another important decision we have to make when writing short stories is the number of characters we include, this doesn’t only mean the number we have appear on the page but also the number of names mentioned. The simple reason for this is that if we try and cram a dozen characters into less than 2,000 words it can become very tricky for the reader to keep track of them. This is important to remember when writing novels too, for example consider works like Game of Thrones in which George R. R, Martin includes an appendix that lists all the characters and their affiliations. The Song of Fire and Ice series has several large books to get to know these characters but they can still become confused.

The problem is that if we have a five page story we can’t practically have a five page appendix explaining who all the characters are. We have to be ruthless and only use characters who perform a function in the story somehow advancing it. We can still refer to characters who don’t appear, not appearing doesn’t mean they’re not important to the story. For instance in Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting For Godot, Godot never appears but if we cut any reference to Godot we wouldn’t have a story because the characters wouldn’t have a reason to be waiting.

However, mentioning character names can be particularly hazardous in short stories because a mention rarely has any description attached to it to help ground the character. In Waiting For Godot the audience can think ‘Ah, yes, Godot is that guy they’re waiting for but hasn’t turned up’. If the characters, in the space of one conversation mentioned John, Jane, Godot, Gordon, and Georgie we might start having problems. Is it John they’re waiting for? Gordon maybe? Who are all these people? In a short story even adding a little description to identify the characters is tricky because every word of description we us subtracts from the number of words to use on the story.

Appearing in the scene is not enough to save a character from being cut either. We have to ask ourselves if they’re moving the story forward or if they’re passing through with no impact on the story. For example if the only impact they have on the story is that they give the main characters their drinks then they don’t need a name or a physical description, it would be nice but once again that’s words away from the story itself and saying ‘the server’ or similar actually becomes clearer than a name in a short story. We could have Ben bringing the drinks but who is Ben and why is he bringing the drinks? Is he part of the group who never speaks again or is he unrelated? By saying the server we know this character isn’t going to reappear and we know what they’re doing there.

This brings us to another point: Do we need to see the characters get their drinks or can they have them already? If they have the drinks already then we’ve immediately saved on description later and cut an extra character? However, we could see them get their drinks at an awkward point in the conversation where they all go silent and wait for the server to leave. This version creates and awkward pause while at the same time telling us something about the conversation and the characters. This is obviously a conversation they don’t want overheard, perhaps because it’s secret, an argument, or simply something that embarrasses them, whether or not it is actually embarrassing. A quick mention about whether or not they say thank you to the server also tells us things about the character, either that they’re polite, or rude, or possibly awkward.

At this point we’re telling the reader things without directly telling them. Implication is one of the most useful tools in short story writing because we can show the readers one thing while showing them something else at the same time. This can often, though as we discussed in On Exposition not always, be the most concise way to tell a short story.

As we’re looking at stories of 2,000 words or less when we’re introducing new characters it’s often best not to introduce more than four or five to keep them identifiable and prevent confusion. This gives them enough space for them to make an impact on the story and reveal their voice without there being too many names to confuse the reader.


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Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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