Creative Writing: Crafting Complex Characters (Quickly) for Short Fiction | Benjamin Woodard | Skillshare

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Creative Writing: Crafting Complex Characters (Quickly) for Short Fiction

teacher avatar Benjamin Woodard, Writer, Teacher, Critic, & Editor

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

8 Lessons (25m)
    • 1. Introduction and Overview

    • 2. What is a “Character Bible”?

    • 3. Round Vs. Flat Characters

    • 4. Archetypes

    • 5. Building the Character: Highs and Lows

    • 6. Building the Character: The Speed Date

    • 7. Building the Character: P.O.V. Paragraphs

    • 8. Results and Closing

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About This Class

Novelists often refer to “character bibles” when discussing the writing process. These “bibles” are intensive explorations of major characters—establishing traits, beliefs, and histories—designed to allow a novelist to understand not only who the characters are in his/her/their plot, but who they were before the novel, as well.

In this class, we’ll take this concept of character bibles and apply it to the art of short fiction, providing your protagonist with virtues and flaws, as well as investigating how thoughts and opinions change with age.

Whether you’re writing a 400 or 4000-word short story, you need to know your protagonist’s tics, joys, and sorrows in order to create a believable connection with an audience. As such, the goal of this class is to provide writers of all skill levels with a quick and easy multi-part project designed to build a credible character in under an hour. By the end of this class, you will have not only a mini character bible, but will have also “spoken” with your character, which will assist you in choosing the right point-of-view for your story. 

The skills in this class can be applied to all manner of fiction writing beyond short stories, from comic books to screenplays, as well as to elements of creative nonfiction. They also provide the author with a useful exercise to keep in a writer’s toolbox.

To take this class, one must only have access to a word processing program, a piece of paper or two, and a vivid imagination.

Meet Your Teacher

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Benjamin Woodard

Writer, Teacher, Critic, & Editor



Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut and holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is Editor in Chief at Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine and frequently contributes literary criticism to Publishers Weekly and Kenyon Review Online. He teaches English and creative writing at a handful of colleges and universities, is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, and was a 2017 finalist for Smokelong Quarterly’s Kathy Fish Fellowship. His fiction and essays can be found in the anthologies Best Microfiction 2019 and Miscellany: Essays by Young(ish) American Voices, as well as in numerous print and online journals. In 2018, his fiction was nominated for Best Small Fictions.

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1. Introduction and Overview: welcome to crafting complex characters quickly for short fiction. My name is Benjamin ordered, and I can't wait to talk with you about how we can create a nice, strong characters for our short stories without having to do a lot of like. Goal in this class is to teach you a few techniques that will allow you to have a quick and easy understanding of your main character. From here, they'll be able to dive into your story with a great amount of confidence. I am a writer, teacher, editor and literary critic. My stories have appeared in different anthologies and literary journals, both online and in Prince. As a teacher, I've taught creative writing as well as composition and literature courses. As an editor, I run a small literary journal online named Atlas and Alice. And as a literary critic, my reviews appear often in journals such as Publishers Weekly and The Kenyon Review. This class, which will touch upon the ideas of character Bibles around characters, flat characters and archetypes, is geared towards new writers. But in all honesty, any writer could benefit from the different project based portions of our class and beyond . Short story writing this material that we're gonna be talking about can really apply in all forms of storytelling, whether that's writing a comic book or whether that's writing a screenplay, it can even come into benefit when you're writing, say, creative nonfiction. Because with creative nonfiction, there sometimes are some literary elements where you have to invent a bit, and all the techniques were going to be talking about can benefit that type of writing as well. By the end of this class, you will have a solid character sketch, a small character Bible, and you'll really be able to engage into your story without having to worry about how your character is going to react. You'll already know, so I can't wait to dive into this and I'll see you in the next video. 2. What is a “Character Bible”?: Before we really start our project, I want to speak a little bit about the idea of characters themselves and speaking about this idea of a character Bible. Now, what is a character Bible? When we talk about writing, we should think about characters as more than just the avatars that we shift around from one point in the story to the other. As a writer, Orson Scott Card once said, Ah, character is what he does, yes, but even more a character is what he means to do. So when we talk about this idea of character Bibles, this is a term that many novel issues. And when they're speaking about a character Bible, what they're referring to is a document or a series of documents that allows the writer to sort of fully explore their protagonists before they dive into writing the novel so that they understand the character. They understand that character's motivations and ideas and ideals, so that when that character gets to any specific point in time any specific situation, they already understand how that character would react. We don't really speak about the idea of character Bibles much when we talk about short fiction And when I talk about short fiction here, I'm referring to stories that could be 400 to 4000 words say, But this type of technique and using this idea of a character Bible, really understanding your character before you write can help any length of fiction. It seems silly to spend a lot of time developing a character when you only plan on writing story. That's 1000 words. Using these techniques, you'll have a good understanding of who your character is without having to spend hours and hours and hours getting into their head. So in our next video will be diving into the idea of what makes a character and start talking about the ideas of round versus flat characters. 3. Round Vs. Flat Characters: When we hear people talk about characters, we often hear them talk about the idea of round versus flat characters. But what is around character? What is a flat character, right? By definition, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, round characters undergo complex development, sometimes sufficiently to surprise the reader. And when we're talking about the idea of round characters, we can also start talking about the idea of a type and by type, what we mean. Here is a character that can somehow embody a large group of individuals. But often times round characters are more than that. Ramen characters have to be three dimensional. They have to feel real to the reader in order for them to care about the situation that they're being placed in in the opposition to that Ah, flat characters, often very two dimensional. Perhaps they have a single mindset, and they keep to that mindset. They don't really change or learn anything from beginning to end in the supplemental material. For this class, I have included three stories, one of which is the classic The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. And this is a great example of showing flat versus round characters. The first round character in this story is the narrator who is writing the entire story in first person in her diary are flat. Character is her husband, John, who is also her doctor. Throughout the story, John really doesn't change. He treats our main character in the same way, very condescending to her. He doesn't necessarily believe her when she says that there are things moving in the wallpaper, etcetera, etcetera. And, yes, while he does sort of faint out of fear of the very end of the story, his mindset doesn't really shift from beginning to end In opposition. Our main character changes dramatically from the beginning of the story to the end, when she first arrives at the house, she is a new mother who is depressed, who is told Toe have bed rest in order to feel better. And by the end of the story, she has become so consumed with the world around her, so consumed with this theoretical woman moving around in the wallpaper that she thinks that she's become a different person. And depending on how we interpret this, of course, we can look at this story as a story of postpartum depression, or we can look at this as a sort of ghost story insanity story. However we look at it, our main character is very round. She changes dramatically, and this is also a good example of why we need flat characters in a story. Because John staying pretty study from beginning to end allows our main character toe have an arc because she's allowed to bounce off of his ideas so that she can start changing in different ways. And that's what makes really great round Character is some flat characters to bounce off. Our supplemental material also contains a story three Arms by Monet, Patrice Thomas and now this is another example that really shows how around character can help a story. The story is very, very short, were dropped into the middle of it into the middle of a situation at a department store, and Thomas could have very easily just let her character go from action to action to action all the way to the end. But what makes this story wonderful is that she feathers in all of these details through her first person point of view so that we really understand and sort of feel for this person. By the time the story ends. In one paragraph alone, we learned that our character is from a certain social class based on the types of food that she mentions. We learned that she has worked in retail for five years. We learned that she knows a lot about Viking. So maybe she has a certain education level. And all these traits and more crop up throughout this very, very short story, so that by the end we care about the character. She feels real, and this is this idea of a round character. And now in our next video, we're gonna sort of tie in one more idea of character before we dive into our project. It has to do with the idea of archetypes. But before we go have one quote from Ernest Hemingway that I think speaks quite a bit to what we're looking for when writing a writer should create living people, people, not characters. A character is a character. Okay, we'll see in the next video 4. Archetypes: Now that we've talked about round and flat characters, the one final thing for us to sort of be considering before we dive into our project is the idea of archetypes. But again, what is an archetype now? By definition, when we talk about archetypes, we mean recurrent motifs or symbols, and there are a 1,000,000 different ways that we could sort of apply this and start talking about the idea of archetype. But for our class and for our purposes, today we're going to use some ideas from psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Young. Young developed the idea that all of life is built around archetypes, and he ended up breaking this down and took three different categories events, motifs and figures and for our class and for what we're talking about today we're going to focus on the idea of the figure. According to Young, there are 12 different sort of archetypes that embody all of humankind. And as you sort of see here on the screen, there are some that seem very familiar, like the idea of the sage, the wise old person or the hero, or the every man or every woman. And these are the types of characters that we often see in stories, whether their stories that we're writing, our stories that we're watching on television, right? We can think of very famous films that sort of embody these different archetypes. Think of the character Luke Skywalker, for example. In Star Wars, he begins as an innocent, every man, and by the end, he's the hero. And one thing to consider when we're talking about the idea of around character is asking yourself if that character's going embody one sort of archetype throughout a story, or if they're going to embody multiple archetypes and often times a really strong character is going to perhaps bounce around from one type of archetype to another. But from beginning to end of story, an example of this is in our supplemental material. It's in Kate Chopin's short story, The Story of an Hour. In this story, we have one main character, Mrs Mallard, who at the beginning of the story learns her husband has died in a train accident. And throughout the story, we assume that she's going to feel very sad and remorseful, thinking about her husband, who has died. But by the end of the story, she's actually sort of happy that her husband is dying, and she's thinking about this wonderful future that she's going toe have in the rest of her days that she's going to continue living. And then, of course, she walks out and who opens the front door. But her husband, who wasn't on a train at all, and she sees him and she dies at the beginning of the story, Mrs Mallard could be considered maybe an innocence, right? She doesn't really know much, and then the more she starts thinking about her dead husband and the more she starts thinking about her future, maybe she's transfers herself into becoming a stage to some degree. And then, at the very end of the story, when the rug is pulled out from under her, she's back to being an innocent right? The point is, in really good fiction. Most of the time a protagonist is going toe and by more than one archetype, and this is something that we're going to be sort of thinking about as we start diving into our projects. But before we jump into our project, I have a quote from Eudora Welty that I think sets us up nicely. The characters who go to make up my stories and novels are not portrait's characters. I invents along with story that carries them attached to them or what I've borrowed, perhaps unconsciously, bit by bit of persons I have seen or noticed or remembered in the flesh. Ah, cast of countenance here, a manner of walking there that jumps to the visualizing mind when a story is underway. Now we're ready to dive into our projects. 5. Building the Character: Highs and Lows: Okay, now that we've spoken about how characters work different character archetypes, round characters, black characters, it's time to finally start our class project. And certainly you have watched all the videos and haven't jumped in immediately ahead to the project because you want to learn all about these other things. But if you have jumped ahead of the project, think this is something that we want to be thinking about while keeping the ideas of round characters and archetypes in mind. Okay, so before we begin, really, every writing prompt comes from another writing prompt, right? The old saying is, there's no such thing as an original story anymore, and the same thing kind of goes with writing prompts on. So this first part of our project actually comes from a small writing prompt idea by the writer Connie May Fowler and I saw her talk about those many years ago, and so in order to do this, you need really just a piece of paper and your imagination, right? So you want to take this piece of paper, you want to cut it up into a bunch of slips, right and what you're going to do with these slips of paper. We're gonna take half of them on half of them. You're going to dedicate them for good deeds or virtues. The other half were going to say bad deeds or vices, right? Think of this like the Rolling Stones song. Sympathy for the devil, Right? Everyone has good. Everyone has bad in them. Right? So what I want you to do is actually think about riel situations. You've been in rial virtues that you have. Um, maybe you donate money to charity or something. Maybe you help the little lady across the street, right? Think of some good deeds you've done in life, things that are real, that have really happened to you and write them down on these slips of paper on the vices. I want you to do the same thing, right? Maybe something that you've done that you aren't happy about. Uh, maybe you have different vices. Maybe you're a smoker or something like that, right? Right. Down. Vices, bad deeds that you don't on the other slips of paper. And if you're in a writing group, this is a wonderful exercise to do with the writing room because everyone writes down a couple of virtues. Everyone writes down a couple of vices, and then you end up by the end of this, maybe having other people's good and bad deeds that you can start incorporating. It's a character if, for whatever reason, you can't think of any virtues or vices. Um, I have a PdF in our in our class material of virtues and vices that you can use for this part of the project. It's been up on the screen a little bit, so you can see just to get some examples of good deeds and bad genes. So when you're done, take your virtues. Take your vices, put them in separate piles, and I want you to pick two of each, right. So when this is done, you're gonna have to virtues. You're gonna have two vices, too. Good deeds. Too bad deeds. However you want to define it, and that's what we're going to take with us into our next step of the project. Okay, um, so either do this with your own material. If you're working with a writing group or something, work with the writing group and get some of each other's ideas. If you can't think of anything feel free to crib the ones that I have in our examples in the class material and we'll see you at the next video for part two. 6. Building the Character: The Speed Date: Welcome back. Now that you have to virtues in two vices from our previous step, it's time to go into our next phase of our project, which is called the Speed Date. We're going to follow these steps first. I want you to come up with eight questions. You would ask someone that you've just met. Think of it as someone you've just met at a party. What are eight questions you would ask Someone that just would help you understand who they are, right? Maybe they could be something simple as What's your favorite beverage, right or where are you from? But maybe you can also ask a couple more complicated questions like What do you consider home, or do you believe in God? So what I want you to do is come up with eight questions you could ask a relative stranger , and we're going now. Answer those questions three different ways. The first way we're going to answer the question is using our protagonist as they are in the storyline that you plan to write Now. You may not know your character very well yet, and that's fine. You may just have a glimmer of an idea of who this person is, but I want you to try to embody that as you answer these eight questions as that character and I would note, here you have your two virtues in your two vices. This does not mean that those traits have to happen at this exact time in this person's life, right? But it is something that maybe has happened in this person's life. Maybe this bad deed is something that happened recently, and it's still weighing on their conscious as the answer these questions. Or maybe they're vice. Maybe they are a smoker, and maybe that somehow works that way into this person's answers. I want you to engage your character as well as you can at this phase and its creation, and I want you to try to answer these questions while thinking about your two virtues and two vices. Now, once you've answered the questions for the first time, I want you to answer them again, but this time jumping ahead 10 years. So if your character was 27 now your characters 37 while you do this, I want you to keep in mind. Not only did your virtues and vices, maybe the good deeds or bad deeds that have happened in this person's life. But I also want you to think what changes over the course of 10 years who comes into someone's life, who come, who maybe leaves someone's life during that time. Think about the speed bumps someone might encounter, whether it's job lies or family wise or relationship lies or even problems with the neighbours wise or whatever it might be. So I want you to keep this in mind as you try to answer these questions as your same character 10 years into the future. And once you've completed that, I want you to now answer these questions one more time. But we're going to rewind 10 years from our base line. So if your character was 27 the first time you answer the questions, the character is now 17 right? There's always the possibility that your protagonist is a child, and if your protagonist is 10 years old the first time you have to the question, we certainly can't rely in 10 years and have a newborn answer. Some questions. So if that's the case, I suggest either rewinding a year or two so taking that 10 year old and answering questions as an eight year old or taking that 10 year old and maybe advancing two years, having them answer as a 12 year old because everyone knows how time works when we're Children, right? Two years for a child is like 10 years as an adult. So much can happen in that amount of time, but the answers will probably be quite different. So rewind this 10 years and answer the questions one last time and again, Maybe this is where some of your virtues and vices really begin, right? Maybe this is where some seed of vice is first planted, and it's something that can develop as the character ages into the 27 or 37 year old. Once you've completed these, you're gonna have a pretty good sense of who your character is because you're now looked at who they are at three different time points in their life, and we're going to be able to use this to go into our next step and really fully engaged the character and get a good sense of who they are so that we have our short story character, Bible you can then dive into your story with. But before we do that, I suggest that you take not just your questions, but also the answers and post them in our community workspace here in our class label them speed date questionnaire so that other people taking the class can see what you came up with. Give you some comments, but also maybe be inspired by the ideas that you came up with. And the answer is that you have 7. Building the Character: P.O.V. Paragraphs: Harper Lee once said, You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, and that's exactly what we're going to do in the final step of our project. So far, you've come up with some virtues and vices. You've incorporated those into answering a set of eight questions through three different ages for your protagonist, and now what we're going to do is engage with our protagonist one more time so that we can really finish off this character Bible and understand where this person is. So we're going to write two paragraphs for the first paragraph, engaging your character and first person point of view. I want you to write a scene from the perspective of your character, as they were in your first set of answers. That is the age in which your character is going to be in the story that you're about to write, and this scene can be anything, really. It just has to somehow incorporate some of the answers or some of the feelings or some of the ideas from the answers that you came up with for your eight questions. Now this scene could be something as simple as them going to the restaurant to order their favorite food. Or maybe they're having some sort of issue with work somehow that you know something that you answered in the question. Somehow that can kind of bubble up in this very short scene, and it does not have to be long. It really should just be one paragraph, and I want you just the inventive and see what happens when you could try to write from that person's point of view, engaging in the answers that you came up with in Part two in the second paragraph, I want you to rewrite this scene, but from a different point of view. Now, if you keep this in first person, that could mean speaking from your main character, but from a different age, right? Um, many first person perspective stories are told in first person past tense. So perhaps this character is now 37. Looking back at this moment when they were 27 speaking about it, um, and that 37 year old version of the person, just like when they answered the questions. That person is different at 37 than they were 27 may be looking back on this scene. They would see in a different way and tell it in a slightly different way. You could also keep it in first person, but have it be from the perspective of somebody else in the room. If you use my example of the restaurants in this person going to order their favorite food , maybe it's the waiter. How does the waiter see this person who has just entered the restaurant and sat down and ordered their favorite dish right? Or maybe you're going to do something in third person, and it's going to be just a random individual observing this character, walking in and sitting down. The point here is, no matter what perspective do you take first person, third person or even second person where you're suddenly now shifting the perspective to the reader themselves as the character. No matter what you choose here, there's probably gonna be some new insight that's going to sort of bubble up within this second paragraph. And so, with both of these paragraphs, we're going to sort of see the character in action. We're also going to start sort of understanding the world around them and how the world itself sees your character, and that's just as important as understanding how the character sees the world. And that's sort of what we're going to use to sort of wrap this up at the end of our projects. But before we get to our final video, I want to suggests that please share this material that you just come up with. Share your two paragraphs in our community workspace here in our classroom. Not only will this help inspire other people taking this class, but it will also allow other people to read your work and to give you some feedback on what you've come up with on character. And maybe they'll be able to observe some thing that maybe you didn't see when you re wrote this scene from a different point of view. So please post your work and we'll see you at the next video 8. Results and Closing: now that you've finished your two paragraphs weaken, really Just combine them with our three sets of answers from Part two and have pretty solid character Bible for our short story. This only took a few minutes, didn't take us very long. And yet, regardless of where you place your character, you can pretty much have a good idea of how that character is gonna react in any given situation. And this is the point of our project. We now understand our character and can confidently move into creating are short story. But really this project can be used in all sorts of writing. Doesn't have to be short fiction. You can use this if you're writing a comic book or say you're developing a screenplay or even if you're writing creative nonfiction piece. That's the creativity. And creative nonfiction could come from almost any type of writing. These exercises can come into play and you don't even necessarily have to use all three steps that we just talked about. Sometimes just using one step will give you enough of a grasp on a character so that you could move forward into a narrative. But by taking our three steps you now have a pretty solid character Bible you can use to dive into your story. In addition, we talked about the idea of round versus flat characters, and we talked about the idea of archetypes and really just using those concepts as well as our project, you should feel confident when it comes to starting your short story. I've had a great time talking with you, and I certainly again encourage you. And I urge you to post your exercises in our class workspace so that other people can engage with you and also be inspired by you Had a wonderful time talking with you. You can find me online at Woodard Writer Twitter, but also at my website. Benjamin J. Woodard dot com I can't wait to see your words in a literary journal soon, and I wish you the best of luck.