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What Are the Different Types of Short Story Characterization?

By Cynde Gregory
Updated May 23, 2024
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It has been said that all authors are crazy because inside one brain, they manage to house an infinite number of personalities. Authors who write novels have many pages to allow those characters to emerge, and the time that it takes the reader to meet and know a character can unfold at a pace that almost resembles life. Writers who work in miniature, however, must use short story characterization that allows the people in the story to leap up, fully formed, in a matter of moments. Along with the use of these main characters, the types of short story characterization include the use of flat characters, composite characters and stock characters.

Most short story characterization includes at least one or two characters who seem fully formed. Although there’s no question that a writer can’t reveal all in a matter of a few pages, a character can seem to spring to life, appearing visually solid and offering glimpses into a deep soul and thoughtful mind. These are sometimes referred to as round characters because they can be perceived from any number of angles and remain substantial and believable. Round characters seem complex, with conflicting motivations or beliefs that tug them in more than one direction and make them do the things they do, or they can be singular and without conflict and therefore able to handle the chaos that comes at them from surrounding action.

One of the things that short story writers often strip down is the number of characters. Creating a fictional world in a handful of pages doesn’t allow a lot of time for lots of short story characterization in the form of fully developed walk-on parts. The author might need a point of view or attitude to be succinctly expressed in the body of a character who doesn’t contribute much else to the tale. These characters are called flat characters because they aren’t meant to reveal, or even have, mysterious interior lives.

Sometimes the writer merges a number of flat characters into a composite representative of short story characterization. For example, in William Faulkner’s finely crafted tale of elderly necrophilia, A Rose for Emily, the nameless narrator symbolizes the life of the village itself. There is only one narrator, but the narrative voice sounds female at times and male at other times, shifting as the story passes through the decades of Miss Emily’s sad and long life.

Especially common in works of short fiction that are period pieces are stock characters. These are meant to be less representations of personality types than of social levels or jobs. A waitress, a mailman or a manservant who is needed to deliver coffee, mail or a visitor and nothing more won’t receive subtle shading from the author’s pen, both because there isn’t time and because doing so might distract from the central action.

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Discussion Comments
By SarahGen — On Apr 19, 2014

Writers are definitely not crazy, at least I don't think that I am. I think that writers are just good observers. They do a lot of research and remember unusual thing. Most of the characters in my short stories, I have heard about or have met in real life.

By serenesurface — On Apr 19, 2014

@discographer-- Although I agree with you that archetypes are frequently used for short story characterization, I don't think that they're always necessary.

Usually, short stories have only several main characters. The supporting characters do not have to be described in detail and are usually only mentioned. Such as the waitress or the mailman as the article described. The main characters are the only ones that need to be described and explained in more detail because the reader needs to understand their personality and the reasons for why they do things. So it's not very difficult to develop those few characters.

By discographer — On Apr 19, 2014

I think that for most characters, writers use generic characters that do not require too much explanation. There are certain character models or archetypes that all of us are familiar with from stories, films and even real life. The advantage of using such characters in short stories is that it doesn't require much to get the reader to imagine and understand that character so it makes the writer's job a lot easier.

A common archetype is the "mother" archetype -- who deeply cares about her children and will do everything in her power for their happiness. There is also the "mentor" archetype, a wise role model and guide for other characters. And of course, the "villain" archetype, the evil character that always harms and competes with the other characters.

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