Years ago, I came up with the brilliant idea to write short stories to get attention for my other writing. After many rejections, I asked myself what could I possibly be doing wrong? It turned out I was doing almost everything wrong. My stories were too long and my dialogue was horrible. The descriptions I had were great, but my characters were flat and hard to believe. I could go on but you get the idea.
This was a hard pill to swallow. I still believed (and still do) that what I’d created was as other science fiction and fantasy worlds I’d loved. But I wanted to learn more, so I looked for help online. I found some critique sites and submitted by best work to them. Learning can be a real bitch when you think you’re already good at something. I’m stubborn, but not so much that I won’t listen once I stop pouting.
I found an eBook on a critique site whose title fit my conundrum precisely. At the time, my stories were mostly science fiction. Which is the author’s genre of choice. I still flip through it for advice sometimes, even while writing fantasy. You might want to check out, “The Craft of Selling Science Fiction That Sells” by Ben Bova. It helped me anyway.
And here’s the big take away from that eBook for those of you who don’t want to read it: Readers want to see characters change. Not necessarily change for every character, but definitely for your Point of View character. Readers like to get to know the POV character, to have a sense of why they do the things they do. We love to hate bullies, to sympathize with heroes, and appreciate a worthy adversary.
So in my stories, especially short stories where word count real estate is at a premium, I try to make the POV characters grow, evolve, or devolve as the story dictates. Not all my POV characters are the protagonist. Some character development may show the downward spiral that leads them to make horrible, selfish, or otherwise bizarre choices. Knowing more about what shaped the characters allows readers to understand those choices, even if they wouldn’t make the same decisions.
I’ve written spectacular settings for my stories, far off worlds and nearby neighborhoods. Events unfold to drive amazing stories in those settings. The dialogue between characters could be spot on and drive the action, not just react to what is happening (both have roles to play in storytelling). But if my POV character (only one in a short story) doesn’t change appreciably from the opening scene to the end, my job as a writer is left unfinished.
Plenty of pulp fiction stories didn’t focus on character growth: Tarazn, Doc Sampson, Flash Gordon, and The Shadow. But I’m reaching for something else. When I write a story, I want readers to have a relationship with my characters. I often write a series of short stories featuring the same characters. Those characters should feel like living, breathing people (or whatever they may be) to the audience. That means each story has to advance both the individual plot and the growth of the POV character.
You don’t have to follow this advice for short stories (or novel length stories). To me, character development has been a powerful device in my story telling tool kit. I hope you’ll find it helpful, but if not, that is one of the great things about creativity. We don’t all have to do the same things to make our stories work.