It’s been a while since I have been a regular contributor to WWK. My nonfiction work took more time and energy than I anticipated. That was fine, but something had to give, and this blog was part of what I put on hold. I’m back now and assigned to the Sunday slot for your reading pleasure—at least I hope so.
Now to a confession: I enjoy writing short stories more than I enjoy reading them. How do I know this? Back in 2004 when I started writing short stories as an adult, I decided to subscribe to Ellery Queen MysteryMagazine and http://www.themysteryplace.com/ahmm/ to see how the “best” did it. For several years I maintained those subscriptions. I let the subscription run out after I realized the pile of unread magazines was growing ever larger. As the workload related to my nonfiction projects started to taper, I began to whittle down my pile of unread mystery magazines.
The pile is in no particular order, and last week I picked up the December 2007 issue of AHMM. After skipping the editor’s notes, I read the magazine from front to back. As I started the second story, “Car Trouble” by Jas. R. Petrin, I quickly realized I had already read it. I knew exactly how it would end. The sixth story, “Pandora’s Fort” by Gilbert M. Stack had familiar characters, but I did not recall the story at all—although I did recall the specifics of a previous story alluded to in this one. I concluded that I must have started reading but not finished this magazine and eventually returned it to the TBR pile.
Here’s what struck me about this saga of the December 2007 AHMM: I had exactly zero memory of the first story. Why the difference? The title of this piece serves as the answer: Petrin and Stack wrote memorable characters. Memorable for me may not be memorable for you. Here’s what stuck out for me:
1. A unique name. Petrin’s character is called Skig. As soon as I read the name, I said to myself, “I’ve read a story about him before.” Similarly, Stack’s stories include three main characters, but one stands out for me: Pandora. In fact, the story blurb features the other two characters, not Pandora. Yet for me she is the memorable one.
2. One or more specific character traits or tics. Skig is always trying to ease the pain in his gut. He knows he’s dying. When meeting people he asks, “You heard of me?” They have. Pandora is a female professional gambler in the old west.
3. Memorable side characters: Skig has an ancient boat of a car that he keeps in a garage over which he lives. These are side characters as much as any human could be. Pandora travels with an Irish boxer and his manager (who the editor highlights in her blurb). I could guess their names, but I might be wrong. It is their professions and characteristics I recall, along with their link to Pandora.
The story I couldn’t remember was well written, enjoyable and, for me, forgettable. It didn’t have a character that grabbed my interest enough.
Now, I do realize that my “discovery” is not exactly new. I have a book in my library by Nancy Kress titled, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint that she wrote to help writers craft dynamic characters. But there is nothing like personal experience to bring a lesson home.
Questions for you: If you are a writer, have you created a character that stands out? If not, how can you fix it? As a reader, what characters are memorable for you and why?