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Cynan Jones on building character

BY Cynan Jones
24th Jan 2020

Our six-week online Writing Short Stories course is led by award-winning short story author Cynan Jones. Cynan won the Betty Trask award for his novel The Long Dry and he won BBC National Short Story Award in 2017, for which he is on the 2019 judging panel (shortlist to be announced on Friday 6th September 2019). His short stories have appeared in a variety of anthologies and in journals and magazines including Granta and the New Yorker.

Here Cynan talks about the importance of building character in short fiction and offers some writing tips on characterisation.

Short stories are one of the hardest forms to write well. Every single word, element, and detail must contribute to the whole. While longer form fiction is more of a journey, short form is an event. And just as we spend most of a journey looking at the scenery, an event is immediate, and immersive. So is the short story.

There’s no room for waffle, endless backstory, and loads of descriptive writing. The focus must be on what is happening. Any details that don’t serve this main purpose need to be given as clues to make the story richer without getting in the way of its momentum.

When building character, it’s important that the detail doesn’t take the eye off the story. You should work hard to choose the most engaging details to give about your character so your reader can build the bigger picture of them.

A story works best when the writer has a thorough understanding of their character. Have a go at this show don’t tell exercise, which will help to clarify for yourself who your main character fundamentally is.

Show Some Character

Write a brief character description of the main character in your story-in-progress. By this, I mean write 100 words or so that presents a strong idea of your character. This could include how they look, act, move, sit. Where they are from. Whatever you feel is relevant. But keep it brief and compact.

For example:

He was a tall, skinny, finickity old man in his early seventies. He was wearing brown trousers with a crisp seam and a clean, freshly ironed shirt, and when he spoke his voice, like his actions, was clipped and precise.

It’s quite likely that what you write might sound much like this example. This is because at this stage you’re trying to work out for yourself an idea of your character. But now you know them a little better, and most importantly have a picture of them, can you take what you’ve written and use it as a basis to ‘show’ your reader something rather than ‘tell’ them?

Using the above example:

Even sitting down, he was surprisingly tall. All of him seemed to go up, and very little of him seemed to go out. In between speaking, he fiddled obsessively with the ends of his nails, the liver spots on the back of his hands jumping and hopping as he did. He picked at his nails quickly and carefully, as if they were the words he was about to speak next.

'He was a tall, skinny, finickity old man in his early seventies' just provides a direct set of facts to your reader. Small details like 'liver spots', the finickity action, however, mean they have to pick up little clues as to the person they are meeting. This is more engaging, and helps to bring authenticity to your piece. Put simply, the details make your character real.