How Many Words Do You Need to Develop Character?

In a recent tweet, writer/editor Robert Swartwood made an interesting observation about character development in the new genres of short, short fiction. He mentioned a horror anthology seeking submissions for stories of 500 words or less. The anthology editors said that character development would be impossible in so few words. Robert Swartwood countered that character development is certainly possible in 500 words and that even hint fiction—a genre he himself created and with a word limit of 25—allows for character development. Of course, Robert Swartwood continued, we must all agree on the definition of “character development.”

I believe that character development is of two types, and both are possible in the 25 words of a piece of hint fiction. I also think character development of at least one type is possible in a shorter piece, although that will be the topic of a later post.

As I understand it, the term “character development” can refer both to 1) the action and descriptions that establish a character as realistic and three-dimensional and also to 2) the growth and change a character undergoes throughout the course of a story. The first type of character development is, perhaps, more static than the second. But in either case, the idea is to create a well-rounded and believable character.

In hint fiction, character development is severely limited by word count and by the fact that, by definition, hint fiction merely hints at character (as well as plot and conflict). Hint fiction can have a meaningful title (not included in the 25-word limit), which can be a big help in character development. As the following examples illustrate, character development of the first type—merely creating three-dimensionality and believability—does seem entirely possible in 25 words or less, although showing character might take away from creating plot. Character development of the second type—showing character change throughout a piece of fiction—might also be possible, although this character development relies heavily on plot.

The following piece of hint fiction shows character development of the first kind. Although we learn what Lucretia is like at the particular moment the story describes, she undergoes no change throughout the piece. The title contributes to characterization:

Bully

One tableful of drunken wedding guests sat together the entire night. Lucretia was among them, snickering.

“Hey, Dottie,” Lucretia called mockingly. “Come talk to us.”

In this particular example, one might argue that plot has given way to character development. In order to establish Lucretia as a bully, little happens in this story.

Character development of the second type is more difficult in a piece of hint fiction. In general, character change in hint fiction probably comes across through plot, rather than through a character’s emotions. The following shows plot-dependent character development. Once again, the title contributes:

Redemption

Dwight cocked his pistol and walked into the bank. He chose the youngest teller. A child waved at him. Dwight put the safety back on.

Developing character and showing character change are both possible in hint fiction. However, the first might tend to take the place of plot, and the second might tend to rely very heavily on plot.

Please read my next blog, in which I explore the possibility of character development in less than 25 words, and leave your comments about character development in short fiction. I would love to hear from you.

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2 Responses to “How Many Words Do You Need to Develop Character?”

  1. […] Beaumont Hardy Editing: Before and After « How Many Words Do You Need to Develop Character? […]

  2. […] my two previous posts, I discussed character development in hint fiction and character development in a few short words or phrases. The following passage shows a new take […]

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