Writing Short Fiction: How To Develop Characters (Novella Series 2)

When you’re writing short fiction, you pack a lot into a little. So writing short stories and novellas is excellent training in improving your fiction in general.

I encourage any of my students who are new to writing fiction to start with short fiction. Not only is a novella easier to control than a novel, it teaches you how to tell a story.

That said, a novella can be anything you want it to be. Some novellas are slices of life, others are stripped-down novels.

(New to writing novellas? We covered the basics in our first article in this series.)

In this article, we’ll look at:

  • Plotting your novella;
  • Viewpoint and your character’s thoughts; and
  • Making readers care about your main character.

Short fiction: what your characters DO creates your plot

One of the most common questions I receive is: how do I plot a novella.

This is very easy, so let’s look at plotting.

Your “plot” is what your characters DO.

Unlike real life, where we do weird stuff for no particular reason, in fiction, motivation is everything because fiction is always causal. This happens, which causes this to happen, which affects this…

When you’re writing, you’re always thinking about causes. If you don’t, you won’t have a plot, and readers will be tempted to toss their Kindle against the wall.

For example, you can’t have your novella’s character, Tom, deciding he’ll skip work today and head to the beach on a whim: you must motivate him. He has to think, or say: “I’m going to the beach because (reason.)”

WHY do your characters act? (They must have reasons)

The reason a fictional character acts is always to solve a problem.

Let’s say Tom’s boss said that if he’s late again, he’s fired. In an act of defiance, knowing that he’s needed at work because they’re short-staffed, Tom goes to the beach.

Think about cause and effect:

  • What does this say about Tom? (He has problems with responsibility.)
  • How does Tom’s irresponsibility affect others? (He’s late in his child support payments.)
  • Does Tom tell anyone he’s going to the beach? (Yes… He brags to the killer, and ends up a corpse.)

You can outline your novella or pants it. (“Pantsing” is writing by the seat of your pants, without an outline.) But as soon as your character does something, you need to provide a reason (motivation.) His action leads to a reaction, and another action.

In our “Tom” novella, his day at the beach leads to his murder. When plotting, think: action/ reaction.

In fiction, characters always act for a reason. And their actions have consequences. You could make a good argument for saying that plotting is simply tracking cause and effect in your fiction.

Viewpoint and character: whose point of view (POV)?

Fiction is more satisfying than real life, because readers know what your viewpoint characters are thinking

Let’s say Tom’s the viewpoint character in the scene where Tom goes to the beach. He isn’t thinking about surfing. He’s thinking about saving his brother.

Tom hasn’t seen his brother since he got out of the army. The last he heard, his brother was homeless. A friend told Tom that he saw his brother at the beach.

So, to readers, Tom’s no longer an irresponsible jerk who skipped work to go to the beach — he’s an honorable man who’s desperate to locate and help his brother.

Let’s look at how to make your readers care about your main character. “Caring” can mean loving or hating: you just want readers to feel.

Keep readers reading by making them care about your novella’s main character

Your aim in your fiction is to entertain readers, and to keep them reading. “Entertainment” essentially means “emotion.” Somehow, some way, you must make your readers feel.

One of the first things readers must feel is curiosity about and empathy with your main character. As the author, it’s your job to help readers to feel that.

To encourage reader empathy and identification, perhaps your character:

  • Buys a sandwich and hot coffee for a homeless man she passes every day on the way to work;
  • Sees a dog limping along the side of the road, miles from anywhere. He stops his car, gives the dog water, and lifts him into his car;
  • Pays for an elderly man’s groceries when he can’t find his wallet.

When you touch his emotions, a reader will keep reading.

Motivate your characters, or readers won’t care

Motivation is tricky. As we’re said, you must motivate your characters. They do things because: reasons. If your characters do strange things for no reason, readers become frustrated. They stop caring about your characters and they stop reading.

Sometimes a writing student will say about a character’s lack of motivation for his actions — yes, but I want readers to be surprised when they find out that he did it because (whatever.)

Twists and turns in your plot are excellent, but if you confuse readers, they’ll stop reading. Your plot must make sense.

Have you watched the movie The Sixth Sense? The plot could have been completely illogical, since its central theme is “seeing dead people.” However, the movie is logical. The psychologist’s motivation is plain, as is the little boy’s, and his mother’s too.

Developing your characters’ motivations will lift your novella’s plotting from blah to great.



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