Developing flash fiction characters is a challenge, especially if you’re the sort of writer who likes to delve into a character’s background, assemble lists of character traits, and put your character through personality tests. E. M. Forster laid out the conventional ground rules for such characterization in his famous book Aspects of the Novel. “Round characters” are fully dimensional, nuanced, and capable of surprise, he said, whereas “flat characters” are two-dimensional and relatively uncomplicated.
Round Characters Vs Flash Fiction Characters
“Round characters” are deemed necessary in a novel, in particular, because the reader wants to have the full sense of a character, to know their inner and outer lives. Our general reverence for psychological realism in fiction places a heavy burden on characterization. A writer tends to be expected to give a maximum amount of information about a character – showing how the character walks and talks and how the past contains the motives for all present-day behavior.
Because of the condensed space of flash fiction, though, the idea of a round characters is not viable. A detailed backstory is an anathema to flash because you’ll be tempted to stuff all of the more you’ve conjured into the story. In flash fiction, we see characters only in “fleeting profile,” according to Irving Howe. We likely won’t know where they were born, if they went to college, or whatever neurosis they might have developed due to a childhood trauma because we know them only in the seizure of a moment, not in a dramatically arching plot line. We hear a line of their flute solo but not the orchestra they play in.
It’s important to realize that a character doesn’t have to necessarily be a simulation of a person in real life in flash fiction – they just have to suggest a full person through hints and the most telling of details. The Unbearable Lightness of Being author Milan Kundera says a character need only to fill “the whole space of the situation” and in the case of flash fiction, that situation is a situation within a situation, you might say – the situation can be a single moment, a single burst. Instead of thinking about characterization through conventional window dressing, we need to only think about getting to the bottom of a character’s existential crux, in other words. To their essence.
In fact, flash fiction characters can even exist more toward the flatter end of Forster’s characterization spectrum. In her essay “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale,” Kate Bernheimer talks about the function of “flatness” in the traditional fairy tale. “Fairy-tale characters are silhouettes, mentioned simply because they are there. They are not given many emotions – perhaps one, such as happy or sad – and they are not in psychological conflict.” Fairy tale characters break Forster’s rule of round characters, but this flatness is desirable, Bernheimer says, because it “allows depth of response in the reader.”
National Book Award finalist Carmen Maria Machado notes how flash fiction borrows from this style of characterization. “It is, by definition, short; it leaves things out, it relies on inference. It doesn’t necessarily have psychological flatness, per se – though it can look like that, sometimes, depending on the story – but possesses missing details (the right missing details) and flatness (the right kind of flatness) that creates a vacuum that begs to be filled.”
Still, while flat descriptors might work for some pieces, other pieces need more illustration and “roundness” to work. One way to get to the heart of a quick, telling characterization is to consider what is different about your character and how that difference is crucial to the storyline (it’s best not to expand into anything extraneous just for the sake of characterization). Instead of going for the surface description of telling what the character looks like or how the character walks, find that piercing, revealing detail that tells the essence of their character.
We all feel singular in some way. I’ll venture to say that we all feel apart to varying degrees, no matter how much we might try to belong. So if you’re writing the story about a vampire, what is it that makes your vampire different from other vampires (and different from vampire stereotypes)? How does your vampire want to belong (or not belong)? Perhaps your vampire bites their fingernails. Or perhaps your vampire mumbles and slumps their shoulders. Cutting against the grain of expectations to reveal a character’s essence is one way to capture the fleeting profile of your character.
Disdain for the Ordinary in Flash Fiction Characters
So nurture an irreverence of banality, a disdain for the ordinary. Don’t be complacent. A complacent author creates complacent characters, characters content to exist in generalities, cliches, and stereotypes. Does anyone in the world feel their existence as a stereotype? Don’t we all feel ourselves as unique, as somehow apart from others, as a being unto ourselves, full of nuances and contradictions and secrets and impulses and . . . the wonderful and sometimes horrible messiness of being a human?
It takes effort to unveil a hidden truth, to bring a reader face-to-face with an arresting or even dangerous encounter. A writer of brevity has to paint characters in deft brushstrokes, with the keenest of images in such limited space, in order to capture their essence. You’re not mirroring life so much as showing life. Your character’s background, all that makes them who they are, matters less than their immediate impact on the reader in that dash of words on the page.
Story & Flash Fiction Character Vitals
If story is character and character is story, ask yourself what is the most vital character trait to tell the story you’re writing?
Flashpoint: You’re the kind
of person who . . .
I once listened to an episode of the WTF podcast with Marc Maron, and when his guest, David Cross, came on, he started giving Maron a hard time by building a farcical and damning characterization of Maron by riffing on the phrase, “You’re the kind of person who _____.” He repeated the phrase, each time filling in the blank with a damning characterization that made Maron seem more and more pathetic and questionable (humorously so). Each repetition of “You’re the kind of person who _____” provided the opportunity to reveal something outside our expectations and experience of Maron. So, ironically, the “kind of person” frame really served to show how Maron was his own kind of singular mess.
I thought this would make a good characterization exercise for two reasons: 1) It serves as practice for capturing a character through dramatic traits, and 2) It helps you work at building a story through character details.
Pushing Flash Fiction Characters to the Hilt
So, think of a character. Brainstorm some character traits. Push them to the hilt. Write seven sentences, each one beginning with, “She/He/They is the kind of person who _____.” See if each character trait can surprise in some way. You’ll not only end up with seven piercing character observations, but you might also end up with a story if each line escalates to the next, building a narrative.
Grant Faulkner is the executive director of NaNoWriMo. The article is excerpted from his new book, The Art of Brevity: The Art of Crafting The Very Short Story, published by University of New Mexico Press. His works include Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo and Brave the Page, a teen writing guide. For more info, visit grantfaulkner.com.