Lesson 3

Building Characters

Hemingway iceberg quotation building characters

We’ve all heard the old Hemingway rule about the iceberg, haven’t we? For our purposes today, the Iceberg rule means that your characters need to have a lot going on under the surface — stuff that will never be referenced explicitly because we just can’t afford to do so in a short story. However, when you do your preparation, the deeper parts of your character will find a way to shine through implicitly.

So, how can you ensure that your characters have depth?

Create a Character Bible

A character bible is the most crucial tool for preparing your short story because unlike the novel, which relies heavily on plot, the short story is all about the character. So you’ve got to find some way to make sure your characters are multifaceted and complex.

Despite the name, a character bible isn’t hundreds of pages long. It’s a series of questions about seemingly unrelated information that will likely never directly appear in your story. And yet it’s crucial for avoiding flat, one-dimensional characters. It sounds like a waste of time, but you need to know the history of each character and their peculiarities so that you can create full and realistic reactions and interactions.

Let’s say we have a character that is always yelling. By the second or third time, this method of delivering emotion becomes incredibly boring to the reader. It creates a flat character because anger is a flat emotion. Anger never really stands alone; it’s the result of pain, confusion, shame, or jealousy. Knowing the initial distress behind the anger allows you to incorporate those feelings into the character’s reaction. So maybe instead of yelling, the character has a curt response, a certain facial expression, or they look away when they speak. Knowing the way your character pushes up the glasses on his face or the way the lines pucker around his lips when he’s doubtful may prove useful in embellishing your story.

These seemingly minor details that populate your character bible will create a much more intricate character. We are complex beings; our characters should be, also.

A Few Questions to Get Your Bible Started

The History 

  • What moment defined the views your character holds now?
  • What are his greatest fears?
  • How does she change when she is around family, rather than friends, or at work?


  • What does your character want? What drives her? What is he willing to sacrifice?
  • How does he handle challenges? What about victories?
  • What's holding her back?
  • What are her weaknesses? Her desires?

The Lumpy Parts 

  • Is your character always in mismatched socks?
  • How does he or she look when concentrating?
  • What are her tics? How does she remove or readjust her glasses?
  • What sounds does he make when he chews his food?
  • Is he often distracted? Is he eager to please? Insecure? How can other characters tell?

Distinguishing Your Characters on the Page

This one’s easier than it sounds—if you’ve spent time creating a character bible. Characters are differentiated in two ways: in speech and in gesture.

To be sure each character’s voice is unique and realistic, pay attention to the way people speak. A great writer’s trick is to eavesdrop on any conversation. In no time, you’ll notice that people:

  • talk in snippets and rhythms,
  • interrupt one another,
  • use pronouns heavily,
  • more often than not, have two conversations occurring at once,
  • often don’t talk to each other. Rather, they talk at, around, and through each other.

Once you’ve chopped up your dialogue a bit, the next step is altering word choice, verbal tics, and habitual language. Changing emphasis or tempo is important, too, and can be done through punctuation. Reading out loud is an excellent way to learn how and where to punctuate the rhythm of character speech.

When it comes to gesture, you can enhance the individuality of character by thinking about the way your character:

  • moves their body,
  • uses their hands when they speak, or
  • expresses themselves facially. The smallest squint of their eyes or a flick of the nostrils can be a subtle yet distinctive trait that really brings your character to life.

The amount of work spent on your character bible is up to you, but don’t feel like the details are set in stone. If you discover something interesting about the character while writing your first draft, your bible will help you maintain consistency in your rewrites.

Now that we’ve touched on character, the next lesson will show you how to narrow your focus and write a lean, mean, first draft.


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