So, the first thing I’d like to look at is: what is it that makes some short stories more interesting than others.
I’d like to give you guys a few pointers about what I think is important in the crafting of a good short story. Now I don’t want to get too involved in the stylistics of how to actually create the physical components of a story because you’re going to learn that at school and you’re going to learn that in tuition, possibly with me, but for those of you who do not come here for tuition, these are the things that you might like to consider.
So first and foremost, in my years of marking creative pieces and looking at students’ works, there are two major problems that I’ve come across with students in the creating of their short stories the first problem that I’ve come across is this idea that students feel they somehow need to write about stories that have overly complex plot, multiple characters and lots of things happening in them.
Creating a simple plot
Now the first thing you have to know is a short story doesn’t have sufficient time to develop a massively complex plot. So fundamentally, for a short story to work, it most likely has to be about some kind of discovery in terms of the central character, some kind of personal awareness, some kind of shift in perspective, some kind of overcoming of an obstacle. That’s the first thing.
Creating interesting characters
The second thing is your character need not be a perfect character. So, what do I mean by perfect character? What makes humans interesting and what makes characters in stories interesting, is human inconsistency.
Good characters that do bad things, for example, you might have a perfectly good character, kind character, and a virtuous character who shoplifts one day and is caught shoplifting. And the story could be about what takes place and of course, what happens and what becomes interesting in the story is how what and why it takes place. Now the story, the concept of a good person shoplifting, is every bit as authentic, in fact, possibly even more authentic, than a bad person shoplifting. Now I’d like to look at why it would be more interesting to create a story around a good character shoplifting than a bad character shoplifting.
Well we’ve heard about clichés and we understand that clichés reflect predictable ways and patterns of behaviour.
So sometimes by reversing the cliché, by reversing the stereotype we find that there’s far more to say and that our stories become far more interesting because effectively what we are doing is we are challenging a stereotype.
Let me give you another example on the nature of human inconsistency. We might have a situation where two friends are best friends, one friend is extremely good-looking, extremely talented and the second friend is not as talented and not as good-looking. Now clichéd would be to have a situation where the friend who is not as good-looking and not as capable, feels jealous of their friend who is very good-looking and very capable. However, if we slightly alter that and we create a little bit more inconsistency (therefore a bit more interest) we may have a story about a friend who looks up to their very good-looking friend but feels overwhelmed by their very capable friend who is well celebrated at school.
But the truth is, that apart from feeling overwhelmed and a little bit jealous, they also really love their friend. So here we have an inconsistency set up and this of course is going to make for a far better story because there’s going to be a measure of conflict and with conflict, comes awareness and greater depth.
Another example of challenging a common stereotype might be that the character who is well loved and adored by all is a very unhappy character and is terribly lonely.
Perhaps this extraordinary character, finds his simple friend who’s not nearly as good-looking and not nearly as capable, important in his life.
Again, we have the breaking of a stereotype and the challenging of a clichéd model. So, each story that really that you write should reflect a character of breadth, a character of mention, a character that perhaps shifts and changes, and a character, most importantly, that challenges the stereotype. So, good characters have poor qualities, sometimes, or follies, or flaws, just as bad characters have good character traits and virtues. So, by mixing the two together we get a much more interesting story.
The next idea I’d like to look at is a common misconception that students make. Many students that haven’t been exposed to that much reading in their lives, tend to copy aspects of characterisation which appear on screen and in films. Now when we write films or we produce scripts for films, the films themselves fill in the details of the characters through visual representation. In a short story, you don’t have the same scope to fill in the visual representation. So, if you try to copy a character that you’ve seen on film or give a character that you’ve seen on film the same language in a short story, there’s a great chance that it won’t have the same merit, that it won’t be as credible. Your character may not be as credible because it’s a bit like copying and pasting somebody else’s character onto your own story.
Now we have our character. So again, what makes a character credible? They have to have a character that’s well rounded and as I said to you before, part of having a well-rounded character is most likely having a measure of inconsistency, part of representing a credible character is also giving a character language that reflects your particular character.
You can’t possible give a character who is young and adolescent, the language of an adult because it just won’t sound authentic. If you get into the mind-set of an adult you have to consider what kind of language they would use.
And if you get into the mind-set of a teenager, you have to consider the kind of language they may use. So, the uniqueness of the character is also built around the kind of language they use. Of course, a common misconception amongst students is to use similes and hyperbole and all this wonderful, figurative language but in an inauthentic way. There has to be a reason for a character or a narrator to use a particular simile. They have to be trying to express an avenue, a way of thinking that in normal prose wouldn’t work as effectively. Another problem with similes is if we use similes that have been used time and time again in other texts, ‘she was cold as ice’, ‘it was as hot as a November sun’.
Coming back to misconceptions about characters and creating authentic characters, I’d like to suggest to you that rather than create a story about what you think or how you think a character should be, I want to come back to the idea of characters’ inconsistencies and character flaws being far more interesting. This is because we see the character struggle, we see the character either overcome their lack of personal awareness, we see the character develop a level of enlightenment, or we see the character never become able to develop a sense of enlightenment or a sense of awareness. This is surely far more interesting than having a character that is a virtuous character based on the idea that you believe that a character should be a good character.
I’m going to give you two examples: “I looked over at my friend as she received the first prize for English and I was so happy for her.” Or: “I looked over at my friend as she received the first prize for English and although I knew I should have felt happy, I was devastated.”
Now how much more authentic is that? And why is it more authentic? And why might that make for a better story than the first story? And it’s as simple as this: real writing is about real people and real people tend to be inconsistent.
Shakespeare does this very well of course, we have lots of different dimensions with Shakespeare’s characters, and they change and they evolve and they’re sometimes disappointing and they’re sometimes noble and it’s they’re inconsistency that keeps us battling and wondering.
Therefore, by creating characters that don’t necessarily act as they should, we create interest, we create empathy and we are better able to explore why and how these characters don’t act as though they should. And so effectively, we are able to create far more authentic characters.