Characterisation is the means by which you make your fictional characters appear to be real people. It is probably the most important part of any piece of fiction. If the reader doesn’t care about your character, he or she won’t read on.
Your characters reveal their personalities in much the same way as real people
i.e. via what they look like, what they do and say and what they feel.
It’s not usually necessary to describe your character at length in a short story (unless their appearance is critical to the plot). All of the following examples come from 1000 word stories. The briefest touches can bring a character to life.
Example one (A City Girl at Heart – People’s Friend)
‘So…how are you settling in?’ I asked Andy when he phoned me the weekend after he’d moved into the cottage.
‘Fine, thanks. Absolutely fine.’
I sensed a note of unease beneath his cheery words. ‘But..?’ I prompted.
‘I keep hitting my head on doorways.’
Example two (Brief Encounter – Woman’s Weekly)
Jonathon wasn’t her usual type. He wore his hair in a ponytail. He wasn’t over tall, but he had big hands and feet, there was a comforting solidity about him. She could imagine herself snuggled up and protected in his arms.
“I build racing cars for a living,” he’d told her as they’d gone through all the polite introductions stuff. “How about you?”
“I’m a nurse. I probably treat people who’ve injured themselves in your cars.”
As you can see, these are very brief physical descriptions, but they are enough to brush stroke a character’s appearance. We know Andy is tall. Jonathan has long hair and is big boned.
But now for a story where appearance is critical to the plot.
Example Three (Mirror Mirror – Take A Break)
“I look fat in it, don’t I?”
Kath could clearly hear the girl’s voice in the next cubicle along. She was talking to her friend, another teenager. Kath had seen them coming in to the changing rooms earlier, both tall and leggy and beautiful.
But not as confident as they looked, she thought now, as she glanced appraisingly in the mirror of her own cubicle. Now she’d taken her top off she could see the slight bulge over her waistband and the tops of her arms weren’t as trim as they’d been only a couple of years ago. She gave a wry little smile.
‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’ Never was there a truer saying than that.
(Extract taken from later in Mirror Mirror)
Kath slipped the dress over her head and smoothed its cashmere softness down over her ample hips. It was Granny Smith green.
She could probably pass as an apple crumble in her Granny Smith dress with her newly highlighted hair. She giggled. A couple of weeks ago she’d have tugged the dress off and found something more staid, more fitting of her middle aged self, but that was a couple of weeks ago.
Everything had changed since yesterday.
For a moment she let her eyes linger on the perfect symmetry of her breasts. Earlier on she’d bought a new bra from Marks and Sparks. She got measured up because she hadn’t bought one for ages. There had been a time when she’d thought she might not need to buy a bra ever again.
Ah, so now we know why Kath’s appearance is important, why we had so much of it – the theme of the story relies on it. She has just had the All Clear from breast cancer and she is celebrating her body still being whole.
But you can see the difference, both in the amount and the focus of description needed.
Thank you for reading. For more tips on characterisation, please see my book, The Short Story Writer’s Toolshed. Currently on sale at Amazon for just 99p.