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Character and Characterization in Short Fiction

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April 2011

Every short story requires the central character who is motivated to take action, or react to an outside force, in order to achieve some purpose. Many short stories also include one or more secondary characters who are part of the story, but not central to it.

The writer can create several types of characters, primary or secondary, flat or round, static or dynamic, even an antihero.

The writer must also create believable characters so that the reader will suspend disbelief, and read the story as though it was true. And so, writers have taken much time developing memorable characters, and characters that readers dislike, even loathe.

The writer develops the main character through different methods of characterization, which is an important part of writing short fiction. “Modern writers have tended to see characterization as an element of fiction that is equal to plot or even more important than it.” (The Art of the Short Story by Dana Gioia and R.S. Gwynn)

In this post, I cover the following aspects of character:

  • Types of characters the writer can construct
  • Characterization
  • Dialogue
  • Stream of consciousness or interior monologue

Types of Characters

All stories require a central character or main character or protagonist. Most short stories also include one or two secondary characters. The characters in a short story can be classified as follows:

  • Main character or supporting character, also known as primary and secondary characters
  • Flat or round characters
  • Static and dynamic characters
  • Protagonist an antagonist
  • Antihero

A short story has a primary character, and often one or more secondary characters. The primary character can change perception, experience epiphanies, sometimes narrate  the story, carry the meaning of the story. The writer builds the story around a primary character. Often, the story also requires secondary characters who are less developed, don’t experience change, don’t experience epiphanies.

The writer can create a story of flat or round characters. Flat characters are stock characters, stereotypes, caricatures, stand-ins for ideas, don’t experience emotion, don’t react, or take action. Yet, the writer needs them to develop the story, but the writer doesn’t spend a great deal of time describing them in the story.  

Secondary characters are often flat. On the other hand, round characters act, react, have the possibility of  expressing emotions, are motivated to achieve a purpose or goal. The writer explores in depth the background, appearance, personality, motives, actions of the round character. The protagonist is a round character.

Writer can also construct static or dynamic characters. The protagonist is a dynamic character who will experience a change in perception, change in behavior, or experience an epiphany by the time the story ends. In contrast, a static character doesn’t change as the story progresses.

A short story has a protagonist, and often an antagonist. The main character is the protagonist, hero, even antihero of the story. The antagonist is the villain or opposing force in the story. The protagonist is always in conflict with the antagonist of the story.

Sometimes the protagonist is an antihero—a main character who is not at all like the archetype protagonist. The writer tells a story in which the protagonist is tragically flawed or has imperfections of character. For instance, the character might be selfish, fearful, bigoted. The protagonist might also have characteristics that are normally associated with the villain of a story.


What is characterization? It refers to the methods that the writer puts to use, in order to develop the main character and supporting characters within a story. In short fiction, the writer can employ two methods: Direct characterization or indirect characterization.

Direct Characterization: The writer tells the reader about the character’s personality using the narrator of the story, another character, or the main character revealing aspects about himself/herself.

Indirect Characterization: The writer reveals to the reader what the character’s personality through the thoughts, feeling, and actions of the character. The writer can do this in several ways:

  • Describing the appearance of the character
  • Describing the character’s actions/reactions/behavior
  • Revealing what the character is thinking, such as stream of consciousness or interior monologue
  • Using dialogue
  • Describing the reactions of other characters


Dialogue is the written words of what character’s say. It allows the writer to move the story forward to its ending. It allows the writer to develop the character— personality, views, opinions, thoughts, impressions. It allows the writer to dramatize the story—to show readers what is happening, not tell them.

Some works of short fiction have no dialogue or only a few lines. Tom Franklin’s “Alaska” has only a few short lines of dialogue. Other short stories are composed of a great deal of dialogue. Except for the first paragraph, which establishes the setting, Ernest Hemmingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” is a short story composed of just dialogue between a guy and his girlfriend.

When writing dialogue, the writer should keep it simple: Only include dialogue that develops the story, moves it forward, reveals conflict, develops the character, and says something important about the story. The writer should not include insignificant, frivolous, unimportant dialogue in a short story.

When writing dialogue, the writer should use simple taglines of “he said” or “she said.”

 Stream of Consciousness

The writer employs the literary device of stream of consciousness to reveal memories, what the character thinks and feels.

James Joyce used the literary device of stream of consciousness to tell the story of “Eveline.” The action of this story takes place in the protagonist’s mind, as descriptions of the heroine’s reaction to internal and external impressions and memories.

Virginia Woolf often employed this technique in her short fiction. For instance, the short story “The Haunted House” is composed of only stream of consciousness. The opening starts as follows: WHATEVER hour you woke there was a door shunting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure—a ghostly couple.

“Here we left it,” she said. And he added, “Oh, but here too!” “It’s upstairs,” she murmured. “And in the garden,” he whispered “Quietly,” they said, “or we shall wake them.”

But it wasn’t that you woke us. Oh, no. “They’re looking for it; they’re drawing the curtain, one might say, and so read on a page or two. “Now they’ve found it,” one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin. And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself, the house all empty, the doors standing open, only the wood pigeons bubbling with content and the hum of the threshing machine sounding from the farm.

Woolf reveals stream of consciousness by using “the you point of view” and internal narrative.

For short streams of consciousness writing, the writer can use italic to notify the reader that the content is stream of consciousness. Example: Steve thought to himself: I cannot go on, I cannot take one more day of this stress, this oppression, this hellish life.

In summary, short stories require a main character who experiences conflict, has motivation to change or achieve a purpose, who experiences revelation, who is altered in some way as the story progresses, or who experiences an epiphany by the end of the story. The writer can deploy different methods of characterization to reveal the character–dialogue, action, description, stream of consciousness. The writer deploys dialogue to advance the story, reveal character, reveal conflict, develop the plot.

In the next post, I will discuss point of view.

1 Comment

  1. jachan kim says:


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