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Ashley Clark | Writing Compelling Characters in Short Story

January 22, 2016

When I got the contract for my first short story publication with Guideposts, I was thrilled. And then it hit me. I had an M.A. in creative writing, years of teaching experience, and several yet-to-be-published novels under my belt… and no idea what I was doing.

So I started with what I knew. The characters.

In “The Christmas Thief,” I wanted to show that people are not always who they seem, and everyone has a story. That sounds trite, I know. But as storytellers, I truly believe it’s our job to challenge to craft characters that surprise the reader, and perhaps more importantly, characters that challenge the reader.

This story highlights a homeless man who was once materially successful, and the pastor of a fancy church who does not react to the homeless man quite as you’d expect. I tried to dig deep into the question of what it means to live on both sides of the church walls.

As I found my main character searching for hope, I realized the story was coming alive because the character had. So here’s what I learned!

  • Give your character a compelling setting from which to thrive. I write southern fiction, usually southern romance, so it was natural for me to set my story in Charleston, South Carolina.
  • Don’t shy away from character complexity. Consider ways that you can include opposites in your story. My main character had a successful past, a seemingly-hopeless present, and an unknown future. I also contrasted the wealth of Charleston with the poverty of someone living on the streets of it.
  • First dig into your character’s deepest hurts and dreams. Then construct a plot to challenge them. Does your character have an abandonment fear? Then someone should probably abandon him/her for character growth. Does your character fear change? Then change is just what he or she needs. Figure out the deep layers of your character so that you can then make the storyworld consistent with those elements.
  • Give each character a unique voice. Your voice as the author should color the whole story. But that said, each character should have a unique voice and perspective so that it’s clear who is saying what even without dialogue tags. Doing so will allow your story to be much more dynamic.

Character development is particularly important for short stories because we don’t have as many pages to build character as we do in, say, a novel. So take time to really delve into your characters’ layers before crafting the plot, and you’ll be glad you did! I hope this encourages you to write characters you love, and I know readers will love them too.

Ashley Clark writes romance with southern grace. She’s dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She’s an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer’s loop. When she’s not writing, Ashley’s usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blog, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.


aa3d939f-6c7a-421e-93f2-481e7b1df6abA Cup of Christmas Cheer

Twinkling lights, the scents of cinnamon and pine, family gatherings, favorite carols from the heart. In the spirit of these cozy Christmas traditions, Guideposts is pleased to present A Cup of Christmas Cheer, a two-book set brimming with heartwarming fiction stories of faith and family set in Christmases past and present.

You are invited to enjoy two uplifting Christmas fiction collections that will flood you with the Christmas spirit and bring a smile to your face. As you delve into each well-crafted story, you’ll be swept away on a wave of glad tidings and good cheer as you are reminded of God’s unconditional love and ever-present care at Christmas and all throughout the year.

Affordably priced so you can easily give the set as heartfelt gifts, the messages of hope and faith in these extraordinary works of fiction deliver the truest gifts of the season. They will inspire all who read them as they bring home the joy of God’s presence at Christmastime.

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