Lesley Nneka Arimah was born in the UK and grew up in Nigeria and the United States. Her work has received grants and awards from Commonwealth Writers, the Elizabeth George Foundation, The MacDowell Colony, Breadloaf and others. She was selected for the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 and is the recipient of an O’Henry Award. This essay originally appeared in Signature’s Compact Guide to Short Story Writing.
Imagine this common scenario: you are at a party, perhaps a neighborhood meet and greet where you are likely to be meeting people for the fist time. You find yourself in a corner with the woman who lives two doors down and she seems like someone you would like to get to know. She seems friendly enough, but there are so many more interesting people in the room and you know you have a tendency to make people’s eyes glaze over. How do you proceed so that she gets to know you, too?
You do not (hopefully) launch into the story of your life overwhelming her with minutiae and your opinion on every conceivable issue; you do not (again, hopefully) blurt out every interesting (to you) thought you’ve ever had. You existed for quite some time before you started this conversation, you will continue to exist after it’s done, and one exchange cannot bear the weight of your entirety. The information you reveal is contextual, perhaps responses to a direct query or a reaction to something happening in the room. Your short story is that conversation and your reader is the person you are speaking to. As you are writing your story you must ask yourself if what you’re revealing about your character is pertinent.
Creating a complex character does not require an info dump of characteristics or backstory and can in fact have the opposite effect. Too much information can read like a sketch of a character which will take your reader out of the world you’re crating by making them to aware of the author at work. Forced and irrelevant blocks of character info too clearly shows your hand as a writer because your reader will immediately pick up on your attempts to manufacture personality.
One good method to writing multifaceted characters within the confines of a short story requires that you change the way you think about writing character. You must discover, not invent, who your character is. The character lived before the moment you first put her on the page and will exist after you’re done with this 3,000 to 7,000-word snippet of her life. Approaching character development as discovery rather than invention allows you to relax as you are not taxing yourself to make up an entire interesting person. Just as one conversation cannot fully encompass the details of your life, one story cannot be responsible for the entirety of your characters life. If the goal is to have your character come across as complex and full-bodied as anyone in the real world, then you must render her, her world and her interactions with her environs with the same nuance that exists in real life. And this nuance often means that less is more. Treat the story like a conversation, not a lecture.
You must let it come naturally. Let your character respond to the stimulus you place around her. Invent the plot and then discover your characters responses to what’s happening around them. Your characters’ unselfconscious reactions will reveal them to be multifaceted.