When we opened up submissions this time, we got some short stories sent our way and decided it would be a good idea to select two short stories and the first three chapters of a manuscript. Maybe...next time...no? We did take a little longer to get through everything this time around, but it still wasn’t as long as we had initially planned for our Inkwell submission periods. We’re often surprised at how quickly we read through submissions. We truly love doing this.
That being said, here is a look at our latest Manuscript Analysis, for one of the short stories we worked on this time around.
Point of View is crucial when creating any story. Not only do we want our main character, or sometimes several main characters to be of interest, but we want the right one to tell the tale we have in our heads. Some stories start off with the right voice. Others may take several tries before settling on the right character.
The challenge then becomes holding onto that voice and making sure said POV doesn’t know anything it can’t possibly know. This will obviously vary when using first or third person, and if it’s limited perspective or not. Most of the times however, our narrator is not all seeing and all knowing, especially when it comes to other characters. They have to feel out characters and get to know them the same way readers do.
Sometimes as writers, as we get to know our characters, we accidentally slip into the head of one that isn’t the narrator. It’s almost like a reflex, wanting to explain a character’s motives or backstory. But breaking POV, unless it’s a dual/multi perspective, is not common and in a short story, POV is even more crucial. You have less pages to capture readers and move to the climax. If you find this happening, it can be as simple as rearranging the focus of a sentence to get back on track. Instead of, “So and so often did this out of nerves,” you can say something along the lines of, “I had witnessed so and so do this often times before.” It is a way of bringing POV back into perspective for both you and your readers.
At the heart of every great story are great characters. The setting, the plot, the themes, are all very important, but none of it matters if the characters are not believable. That’s not to say that they have to be likeable. Likeability and believability are mutually exclusive, and the myth that a character must be likeable, limits a writer’s avenues of creativity. What one must strive for is to bring the reader into the head of the character. If done correctly, even a clearly deranged or ‘bad’ person’s actions will seem logical--not right or justifiable, but logical. Their actions should seem like normal behavior for that character, not out-of-the-blue deviations from the norm.
In a short story, this task can be more difficult as there is little time to develop a character as well as create an exciting narrative for the reader. For an uncomplicated character, this can be done quickly, by showing them doing something that defines them (such as a generous man stopping to give a poor person money or a fearful man crossing the street to avoid helping someone being robbed). When dealing with an unlikeable character, the task becomes much harder because it would easy for the reader to misinterpret the character’s motivation. It is important to establish them as deeply as possible, because it will be harder for the reader to relate to that character. The closer to the character’s mind the reader can get, more the reader will understand that character as the writer intended. A writer can do this with a more extensive backstory, through internal thoughts, or by interactions with other characters. Sometimes all three is required, lest the character seem two-dimensional.
Continuing from Ismael’s statement about keeping characters from being two-dimensional, another way to keep your character feeling real is to make their behavior believable. The reader should be able to fully imagine a character as a person, and believability can crush that. A large problem we, as writers, can run into with believability is the need to advance the plot. Plot is central to the story, but characters need to feel like they move through naturally, not like they are forced through.
Sometimes we create characters that seem unreal. The character moves through the plot, but in order to do so, he makes foolish decisions, is unreasonably trusting, comes across as naive. Or worse, the character simply waits for things to happen to him, effectively waiting to die, and only reacting to what is thrown at him in ways that seem uninspired. They’re shrugging when they should be screaming, because our plot says that a shrug is more convenient.
When you create a character, make sure they behave in the way a person like that would, not in the way you’ve made him, and you will tell a stronger story, one with twists and turns, one that rattles with the clamor of a battle of wills.
No character should feel like a plot device. A character’s behavior should never be convenient. Their inconvenience creates the kind of tension that makes a good story great.