Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.
We come now to the third type of story defined by Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient, the story of character. In longer fiction, a story of character demonstrates how a character changes over time. The character has to want to change something in his or her circumstances—to break free of some burden, say, or take on a new role in the family or a new identity in the wider world. The story evokes a reader’s desire to see the character succeed in transforming unhappiness into something better.
A key part of this formulation is that the character’s circumstances are entwined with the character’s personality. What may seem to the character to be an external problem turns out to be a psychological one. In a story about a woman in an abusive relationship, for instance, leaving the relationship would transform the situation. However, the woman’s personality, attitudes, and beliefs generate a predictable set of actions that do not include leaving her abusive partner. In fact, the partner counts on her being the sort of woman who wouldn’t dare leave him. The story of changing her life must be one of her becoming a person who can get out of a bad relationship.
There are other ways to think of the story of character, but the most common structure is the one that Card proposes. The story opens with an unhappy character who promptly (ideally on the first page) launches an effort to exchange a unhappy life for a happy one. A change this significant naturally doesn’t happen on the first try. The process will be a gradual struggle, and typically some other characters don’t want the protagonist to change. This type of story takes time to tell, and a narrative of character transformation probably fits a novella or a novel length best. Even in a conventional short story of three to five thousand words, the process of changing from one kind of person into another is hard to convey. To really “get” a complex character, the reader needs to see that character in action, and it takes multiple incidents to demonstrate convincingly who the character is at the beginning of the book and how he or she is different in the end. The meat of the story, the middle, is the ongoing struggle to change.
To tell a story of character in flash fiction clearly poses special challenges. The main outline of such a story can be conveyed using the three-part structure I wrote about last August in “Momentum, Disruption, and Proof of Deflection.” Superficially, this looks like a structure that’s suitable for flash fiction about character. The story accompanying that column, “Daddy,” certainly demonstrates change in a character. However, that story is not really about the character. The narrator stands for any man who learns he is going to be a father. We don’t know much about him, and the change that the protagonist undergoes is something that happens to him. The new knowledge changes him with no effort on his part. This makes “Daddy” more of an idea story than a character story.
To write the kind of character story that Card is talking about as flash fiction would require much more work in the “momentum” part of the story, which would have to establish the character’s role in life, his unhappiness, and (most difficult in a brief text) what it is that makes him him. And that’s just the first of the three parts. It may be possible to tell a psychologically satisfying character story of unhappiness, struggle, and transformation in 500 words. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done.
Stories of milieu, idea, and event lend themselves more easily to very brief narratives than do stories of character, but this does not mean that character stories are off limits to writers of flash. We do, however, have to redefine what a flash character story is.
If a novel of character lets you get to know a character as well as you’ve ever known someone in life, then the flash fiction equivalent is a speed date. You have 500 words or so in which to meet the essence of a person.
In flash, the object of a character story probably won’t be to see the character struggle successfully to change. Flash fiction can simply focus on a character who is interesting to observe for a few paragraphs. People are interesting, and if we can manage to write revealingly about an interesting person, that’s all the story structure we are likely to need.
How you go about this will depend on what you think is interesting about your character. Is there some pattern of behavior that defines the character? Then your story might recount three incidents, widely separated by time, that show the character revealing this essential aspect of his or her personality each time. Or is early life destiny in your view? Your story might focus on who an adult character is now and then show, briefly, the childhood experiences that made her that way. Or you could tell the story chronologically, beginning with childhood and revealing who that child has become.
Compared to longer stories of character, character flash fiction is dramatically simplified. How well can you get to know someone in five minutes? In a few hundred words, you should be able to convey the essence of a character, and readers who find real people interesting may find your fictional character interesting in the same way. Some people feel that any narrative of character that fails to show that character struggling to overcome a problem is merely a “sketch.” By this definition, flash character stories like “Jerry” are sketches, not stories. If I can portray a character in a few hundred words the way that a good visual artist can sketch a face, I still think I’ve provided the reader with a satisfactory read. Human personalities, like human faces, are interesting.