July 20, 2014

WRITING ADVICE: How Many Characters Does It Take To Make A Short Story Sing? Guy Stewart #4

In September of 2007, I started this blog with a bit of writing advice. A little over a year later, I discovered how little I knew about writing after hearing children’s writer, Lin Oliver speak at a convention hosted by the Minnesota Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Since then, I have shared (with their permission) and applied the writing wisdom of Lin Oliver, Jack McDevitt, Nathan Bransford, Mike Duran, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, SL Veihl, Bruce Bethke, and Julie Czerneda. Together they write in genres broad and deep, and have acted as agents, editors, publishers, columnists, and teachers.

While I don’t write full-time, nor do I make enough money with my writing to live off of it...neither do all of the professional writers above...someone pays for and publishes ten percent of what I write. When I started this blog, that was NOT true, so I may have reached a point where my own advice is reasonably good. We shall see! Hemingway’s quote to the left will now remain unchanged as I work to increase my writing output and sales! As always, your comments are welcome!

There’s lots of advice on this subject, offered by the famous, the infamous, the unknown, and the anonymous:

“Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.” ― Neil Gaiman

“Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.” – Kurt Vonnegut

“...I'm a strong believer in telling stories through a limited but very tight third person point of view.” – George RR Martin

“...no hard and fast rules, but short stories can’t hold too many characters...If characters aren’t absolutely necessary, get rid of them…” – James Plath

“So take a look at your cast of characters and evaluate the purpose of each person in your story. How many of these characters are going play a part in the climax?... some characters serve no useful purpose and should be deleted altogether for the good of the book...the more streamlined your cast, the tighter and more powerful your story is likely to be.” – K.M. Weiland

“In short stories...the fewer the characters, the better...Most short stories thrive on 2 – 4 characters.” – A.J. Humpage

“...a short story doesn’t contain many characters. There is no need, or room, for large Dickensian ensembles. Two or three are usually more than sufficient...use enough characters to properly tell your story—not a single character more or a single character less.” – Scribendi

“Usually a short story focuses on one incident; has a single plot, a single setting, and a small number of characters; and covers a short period of time.” – Wikipedia

Good advice, certainly, but how have I incorporated it into my own writing?

Surveying my pro or semi-pro published science fiction, I find the following:

In stories of less than 2000 words, I find that three of them had two characters, the others each had one main character.

In stories with more than 2000 words, I find that ten of them had two characters, and three of them had two characters with either a significant minor character or changing minor characters.

Consensus appears to be that short stories (as defined by SFWA, a story of between 1000 and 7499 words) should have one, two, or three characters. I would add that only one of those characters should be fully developed; a second might be partially developed. Anything past that should be either a walk-on part or referred to as “the Captain” or “the other alien”.

What do you think?

PS: If you are a writer, you have to watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BVo2ZRUWSdY

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