I’ve written about this before and I’ll probably write about it many times again. In my day job as a lecture in Creative Writing at the University of Salford I have just been marking the first attempts of many of my students at writing fiction. Okay, so they’ve probably been doing it since infant school but have had a huge break since then. Now, anyway, we’re looking at it in a more critical way. We’re trying to unpick what the tools are and get a better grip on them.
The basic tools
For starters we’ve looked at character, setting, point of view, story shape, and point of view. Point of view and character are closely related, especially in short fiction.
Character / plot debate
Some writers claim to write from character, other from plot. I’d argue, however, that plot comes from character – or more precisely from the tension between two or more characters. A useful way into plot, I find, is to create four basic characters, put them together and see what happens. These are: the hero, the friend, the mentor and the enemy. The enemy may be a set of circumstances. The mentor may not be human. The friend is powerless but totally on the hero’s side.
Rounded and believable characters
No evil character must be too bad and the best of heroes must have their weak spots. This helps them to be believable. Also, we must be close enough to the main characters, particularly the protagonist, in order to know them well enough to glean this information.
How we create these characters
It’s really important, even for a piece of flash fiction, for the writer to know her characters. She must know about the physical, the intellectual, the emotional and the spiritual aspects of her main character and most importantly about his / her motivation within this story. As the creator of the story, the author should be able to answer any question about this character.
This doesn’t necessarily mean making copious notes though this can be useful. It can all be just in our heads. But something quite uncanny happens: if we are clear about our character we somehow manage to transfer that clarity to the reader without being explicit.
The dark character
Here I mean the one we don’t see, the one who is a stranger to us, rather than one who is dark by nature. We uncover their traits with the reader. At this point in fact the narrator becomes the main character and this apparent protagonist is actually a character we meet. For a moment the author stops being omniscient.
I’ve been gratified to see that my students have taken this on board. Many of them in submitting drafts for their short fiction have provided detailed character sketches. Sometimes these have been longer than the stories themselves. This is right; there is a whole process behind the finished story.