Character Defining in a Flash

What makes a story? Obviously, the plot has to be there, but if the characters that have to convey this aren’t compelling, then it is all for naught. What makes a good character? Am I the right person to be telling you? Well, if you don’t know what makes a “good” character, go away and read and think and read and think, because I’m not going to tell you that here. In fact, I’m not going to tell you how to do anything. I’m going to share an approach, which I find both obvious and useful. In that sense it is not particularly novel, so think of it more as a reminder, or an endorsement.
Harry Tuttle, Modern Cave Dweller, Character, Writing tips

The problem with many ideas, not just for writing stories, is that they are in flux, they’re fluid, until they’re written down. There is something about writing down your thoughts that makes them solid and coherent. It is not enough to write bullet point lists, you need to construct proper sentences before the idea can be forced into being something coherent. If you are like me, still learning to write (who isn’t, really), then this approach also helps in that respect – because to be a better writer, you need to write. So we’re told.

So, this is it. This is what I’ve been doing and finding useful. Take all of your characters and write short (flash) stories about them. If it is a minor character, you can think about what is happening before they arrive in your story and where this interaction leads them afterwards. If it is a main character, maybe you need a few stories of key/defining moments in their life. Maybe some of this will even make it into your story, but the effort will give your characters depth beyond what you find described in the main story. And that is the point! You need to know your character better than anyone else. You need to understand what drives them and makes them chose between two options. You don’t want to have to spell this out as you drag the reader through your story.

There are similar ideas out there, like writing down 20 (some number) of things only you know about your character. This is useful, but it comes back to the bullet point lists. I feel that putting these ideas in a short/flash fiction gives so much more depth to everyone, as well as providing excellent writing practice. I have been shifting to this approach over the last few months as I brainstorm/compost a new story and finding it incredibly useful for ironing out plot holes and better understanding the motivation behind the decisions my characters are making.

I don’t give out writing tips so much, primarily because I think that there are enough people doing that, some of them maybe even have the authority to do so. I would rather say that this is an interesting approach and one that I am finding useful and productive.

Have you tried this approach? Did you find it useful?