characters


by April Bradley

Lately, I’ve been focusing on an aspect of character development in my own work that I’ve noticed in stories that catch my attention, especially in flash fiction: revealing character through embodied movement. A character’s lifelike qualities emerge vividly out of how she occupies the narrative space. The brevity and compression of flash allows writers to experiment with form and structure with few constraints. In respect to embodied movement, as with any aspect of fiction, the writing and the words carry more freight. One of the more memorable examples is Ron Carlson’s “The Great Open Mouth Anti-Sadness.” The whole piece is a wonderful work of characterization, yearning, emotion, and movement in a confined space:

He worked one dress shoe off with the other, and then held it on a toe as long as he could. The air cooled his arch perfectly, and he thought that: perfect. Evaporation was such a stunning feature of life on earth. Water rises into the air. Now he opened his mouth and then a little wider than was comfortable. [1]

Another is Kathy Fish’s lovely “Tenderoni” from Smokelong Quarterly, where a young woman watches her boyfriend figure out how to move a dead kitten off the road:

My boyfriend and I grab our bikes and pedal across town for a parade which has probably been cancelled anyway. Ahead, Mark’s skinny calves pump, his day glo rain poncho flaps behind him like a flag. He stops and gets off the bike and I catch up to him.

“Oh, damn,” I say. “A kitty.”

“It looks sort of lumpy,” he says. There’s a drop of rain holding on to the tip of his nose and steam rising from his shoulders. “We should move it.”[2]

We know nothing about this couples’ ages, not much about how they look, or exactly where they are. It’s raining, they want to see a parade, they ride bicycles. One likes to smoke, one wears glasses. They are tender with one another. Readers feel like they share something intimate and significant with these people. Most of what we learn about them is from how they move and act and in what they say to one another.

Characters move through space and display physical characteristics, emotional expressions, and psychological states. They also convey their intellect, sexuality, humor, mood, opinions, trauma, and the status of their relationships. How a character conducts herself in the story tells us more than a description. We typically take advantage of dialogue as an opportunity for subtext, but movement can enrich characterization without having to rely on explication. When we show how a character emotes, for example, the disparity between their inner lives and their exterior responses contribute to tension and conflict. Nancy Stohlman in The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories cleverly borrows most everything the story needs with a one-word title, “Samson” and writes twenty-one more words of precise movement and dialogue:

“Don’t worry, we’ll both do it,” Delilah said, reaching for the hair clippers on the counter next to the lice shampoo.” [3]

How a character or reader changes and transforms over time in the narrative space has something to do with embodiment and movement, even if there is little to no embodiment and/or restricted movement. They are enabled to act in some way. A character’s movement also influences how time dilates and constricts, speeds up and slows down. This is how character movement can regulate pacing and momentum.

In “Abbreviated Glossary” Gay Degani uses concise, stark sentences to convey an emotionally charged story in 150 words that takes place over eight months:

Pact:
His lips disappear between his teeth when I break the news. He says he’s not ready—no diapers for him—but I know he is. I’ll do the hard part. I promise.
Hope:
My fingers knead the curve of my belly. Dev slips an arm around my waist and grins at his boss. Proud papa.[4]

Amelia Gray in “House Heart” tells the story of how a couple lures a woman to their home and traps her in the ductwork. For one woman, her whole world becomes the visible interior of the house and how she dwells in it with her husband and this new, determined presence. For another woman, her space is confined to the interior of a house and the spaces she creates:

We licked each other’s faces, listening to the girl above us. At that moment, she was learning that she could crawl on her hands and knees in he main passage, but that in the smaller lines, she would have to slide on her belly, arms outstretched, pulling herself forward.[5]

Eventually, everyone’s focus narrows to the interior where violations of hospitality play out.

Character development through movement is another way for our characters to gain more presence, mass, and substance. A young, recently injured gymnast is going to move very differently than his older brother who is a former heavyweight class wrestler and makes glass for a living. There are also characters we cannot help but remember always, not so much for the way they look but for their presence and how they bear themselves in a story.

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[1] Carlson, Robert. “Great Open Mouth Anti-Sadness.” Flash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short Stories. Ed. James Thomas & Robert Shapard. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 62-63.
[2] Fish, Kathy. “Tenderoni” Smokelong Quarterly. Issue 28. October 2, 2008 Accessed June 13, 2015. http://www.smokelong.com/flash/kathyfish22.asp
[3] Stohlman, Nancy. “Samson.” The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories. Magill SA, Australia: A Pure Slush Book, 2014, 86.
[4] Degani, Gay. “Abbreviated Glossary.” Melusine, or Woman in the 21st Century. Accessed June 13, 2015. http://www.melusine21cent.com/mag/node/251
[5] Gray, Amelia. “House Heart.” Gunshot: Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. 16.

 

April Bradley is a native of Goodlettsville, Tennessee and lives with her family on the Connecticut shoreline. Her fiction and creative nonfiction has or will appear in Thrice Fiction, Narratively, Southern Women’s Review, Hermeneutic Chaos and other publications. April serves as the Senior Assistant Editor for Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine.

by Glenn Mori

I am chagrined when I critique someone’s writing and point out a lack of tension and emotion (the grit under interactions, the differences in perspectives, the micro-tension on the small scale, crisis and conflicts on the larger scale, and ask ‘where’s the anxiety, worry, irritation, miscommunication?’), then discover the same failing in my own fiction.

The source of the problem (for me at least; I’m not sure about my writing partners) is usually multifaceted.

Writing from plot. I don’t always write from plot, but when I do, I can be in a hurry to move up the story ladder. Quantity of description falls, line-by-line writing quality drops, characters become inconsistent or cardboard or boring. I’m not putting myself in my character’s skin to look around and experience their world.

I’ve failed to communicate what I intended. When I proofread my writing, I read between the lines and don’t realize it.  Instead of seeing what’s written, I re-experience what I was thinking when I wrote it. This kind of writing is useful only if no one else reads it; a diary, for example, or a personal blog.

These problems can occur simultaneously. I might design characters around a plot and believe that I’m ready to write, but in reality I have flimsy character sketches zap-strapped to my plot skeleton and I don’t see weaknesses because I sense more in my words than I’ve actually written. I suspect this happens often with beginning writers who try to patch it with “interesting traits” or “examples of conflict” from a website to fill the story out.

Also,

Some of my characters are close friends.  They have similar values, similar goals, get along well. But if there are no differences, they are essentially a single character. I’ve swapped internal narrative and solitary ventures for conversation and a wingman.  Without diversity it can be boring to read. A sidekick has to have more reason to exist than to replace introspection with dialogue.

These are not uncommon issues for a first draft, but it may require the comments or questions of an experienced reader to point out the weaknesses, and then self-evaluation to determine the reason.

And something I’ve discovered recently,

I write like a reader, not a writer.

As a reader, I may be looking for adventure and excitement. If I carry that into my writing, then I’m fine.

Other times I become too attached to the characters to enjoy the ride. When I’ve identified closely with them, then difficulties or dangers worry me. Conflicts and misunderstandings stress me. It’s uncomfortable to read a scene where two friends disagree. Obvious bad decisions are frustrating. Foreboding circumstances and increasing tension distress me. Inescapable positions generate claustrophobia. Occasionally I’ll find myself speed-reading through passages of high anxiety.

As a writer I can avoid stress by skipping the sources. Husband and wife don’t have to have underlying resentments. A friend doesn’t need misgivings about the heroine’s date. Partners can be in full agreement about the next step in the investigation. Everyone interprets the information or data exactly the same. No one argues, feels lazy, is naïve, makes mistakes, acts condescendingly, is irritable because of a cold, or loses things.

In real life, when the bulk of our interactions with family, co-workers, and fellow transit passengers doesn’t get our heart rate up, we live a comfortable life. I’m certain there are portions of some genres where this is common, but it’s pretty hard to make interesting reading from untroubled characters leading a stress-free life.

So, love your characters as you love yourself. But look for the emotion in their lives, and if you find you haven’t included enough, figure out why. Slip inside their skin, search for the tension, and communicate it to the reader.

When someone critiques your work and suggests it lacks tension or drama, don’t get defensive. Don’t start listing all the worries and concerns they’ve missed because odds are, if someone says it’s lacking, there’s either too little and/or it’s not well communicated.

Don’t write a fantasy about how wonderful your life could be. Write like a writer.

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Fiction is Glenn’s most recent area of study. The first discipline was music, where he completed a masters degree in music composition, followed by accounting, more practice with jazz music, and then writing about online poker, where he remains winning micro stakes player. His ruminations about fiction can be found at www.intermittentrain.com.  Follow him on Twitter @gmori.

by Gay Degani

There is no exact price one can put on words when we consider what words teach us, how they inspire us, where they take us, but writers selecting those words must always weigh their value—how much bang for the buck does each word give—before sending them off as a story, especially a piece of flash fiction. Words are precious in any work of fiction. They are the stuff that create mood, reveal character, offer tension, but in flash, each word must be absolutely worth the space it uses.  If it does not serve a very specific function, then it must be reconsidered for one that does.

If you read my previous essay about questioning the text, you know that one of the ways to learn craft is to spend time with the texts of admired authors to learn how they do what they do, how they manage to convey a whole personality, a setting, a complication in so few words.  How do they do it? Let me provide some examples.

From Sherrie Flick’s “Secrets(New Flash Fiction Review), her second paragraph:

High up in the hayloft, Robbie looked down on the pile of fresh hay. The sweet smells; stark blue skies ringing outside the barn door. Dust sparkled in the air around him–and his brothers romped all around. Hand-me-downs, crew cuts, hard-soled shoes. (43 words)

What do you know about this piece?  My suppositions are

hayloft = a barn, a farm, out in the country, rural

sparkled = summer or Saturday, at least a break. Could be winter but since there is no word used to provide a sense of cold weather…

brothers = family, at least two brothers, maybe more

romped = young, fun-loving, teasing

hand-me-downs = poor or at least middle-class

crewcuts = perhaps in the past, 40s 50s even 60s, unlikely current

hard-soled shoes = these boys work on the farm; this is probably just a break

Sherrie Flick In this paragraph, the author provides the reader with an anchor, a visual setting, a sense of the characters: a rural place where the air is pure, where poor farm boys roughhouse in a loft during a break in their chores. With the title Secrets and the first paragraph, which uses precise language to set up the rambunctious spirit of boys, “Robbie jumped out of the hayloft and hit his head,” Sherrie Flick sets up tension and foreboding. What happens in this 238-word story comes to the reader as a movie would with a specific situation, actions taken, a moment of revelation. The impact of the story comes from the opening, from the exact nature of information given. The reader does not have to wonder who, what, when, where, why, and how.  This evidence is there, not necessarily to be understood in an absolute sense, but rather tethered to a reality that can be “seen” and “felt” by the reader. Every word counts.

 

Here’s another example from Barry Basden’s story, “We Continue to Evolve ” (Fwriction Review) The first line:

“Since the drought, turkey vultures have begun riding afternoon thermals into town, gliding in on their enormous wings to survey heatstruck pets in parched backyards.”(25 words)

What are the suppositions?  What does “the drought” tell the reader?  Bad times! Vultures! But what does the word “turkey” add to this piece?  Why use it if words are so precious? For me, “vultures” alone hypes the piece, tipping it toward melodrama or horror, while “turkey” mellows the concept out just enough to put in a sense of gritty everyday reality.

After writing the above paragraph, I looked up the difference between “Vulture” and “Turkey Vulture” to help me understand why this might be.  According to the Audubon Society, there are “black vultures” and “turkey vultures,” turkey vultures being the more common. On some level, I think I understood this, and why I felt in reading the first line, I would be getting reality rather than melodrama. What else does this first sentence tell us? With the specific use of “turkey” and the specificity of “thermals,” I feel a confidence that this writer knows things, and I trust him.  He is choosing his words with great care.  I want to keep reading.

Then there is the image of birds of prey with “enormous wings” hunting for “heat-struck pets.” Again the author has worked a bit of magic.  It is the pets who are in danger—do they have any chance of survival? The stakes are presented for the story and they feel high, yet still grounded in reality. Then we are given wasps “there to fuss and worry the dove.” We don’t know yet exactly what this story is going to mean in the end, but now we have a dove in contrast to the turkey vultures circling.  The tension is ratcheted up because now we must worry not only about the pets, but this lovely dove.

We have a lyric opening to a story, high stakes proposed, as well as being engaged by tension created by the subliminal question, “What does this mean?” The next line, “It’s mostly quiet now,” brings pause to the story, before understands with the next line, that “Melissa left.” Ahhh, we meet the “dove.” There are two people in the story, the woman who has left and the man who is left behind:

“I’m sitting near the shrinking pool, skimmer pole across my lap, cooler at my feet, looking for snakes and frogs among the floating dead leaves.”

This carefully constructed sentence parallels the opening sentence, but now there is this man “looking for snakes and frogs” rather than turkey vultures seeking “heat-struck pets in parched backyards.”  Now a correlation comes into play. Although the birds are preying on the creatures below to pick their bones, the man is lying in wait “to save” the creatures who “bob up to gulp the fiery air.”  And this comes together in the last line, “Help me find a way to lure her back from the coast.” The careful placement of the word “lure” in this sentence brings with it a certain amount of discomfort. Wince by Barry Basden This word, every word, plays its part in this piece, suggesting not just a man whose wife has left him, but a man with a net, a man who believes he has the answer, a man presented to us in a way that suggests this is not a simple story.  There are complications here. We do not know the right or wrong of her leaving and therefore, we are left with something more thought-provoking, something that lingers. Ambiguity occurs at the end of these stories, but only at the end.

Both authors have taken great care to give readers specific concrete details throughout so we as readers are anchored in the stories. They have both used words as if those words cost about $1000 each. Thank you, Barry Basden and Sherrie Flick for allowing me to use your excellent work as examples!

Sherrie Flick is author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness (University of Nebraska), the flash fiction chapbook I Call This Flirting (Flume), and the forthcoming short story collection Whiskey, Etc. (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2016). She lives in Pittsburgh and teaches in Chatham University’s MFA program.

Barry Basden lives in the Texas hill country and edits Camroc Press Review. His latest flash collection is Wince.

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  Gay Degani’s suspense novel What Came Before is available in trade paperback and e-book formats and blogs at Words in Place where a complete list of her published work can be found.

by Townsend Walker

Townsend WalkerThe wind ponies of my mind take me to places I’ve never been. They race across plains of thought heedless of what they’ve never seen.

And a process begins, a thought, often an opening line, a search for a next line, a following line. A character may appear, or not. Keep writing. A location or event fully described, when that, then a person will appear to populate it, move around in it.

Flash is an experiment. What comes of it?

Capture an emotion—Charlie’s Life, MuDJoB

Charlie was a mean lad. Charlie was a mad lad. Charlie was rad bad. Charlie clubbed his cousin, then his aunt.

“Jail or Army, lad?”

Charlie got to go war. Charlie got to kill and maim.

Charlie got a medal. Charlie was a hero. Charlie was the man. Charlie was the man. Charlie got to come home.

Charlie got a wife, don’t know why. Charlie clubbed again, don’t know who.

This is not a life.

Charlie?

Develop a Plot—The Gun Wasn’t Hers, Flash Frontier

She hadn’t wanted it, but there it was, on the seat beside her. For your protection, they’d said.

She was driving I-90: Seattle to Chicago, beat-up Beetle. Running a package out for this guy she knew. A delicate instrument,—didn’t trust UPS. The pay was good and she was between gigs. Lots of empty country out there, they’d said. True. Miles of nothing but dirt and sky flying by.

Out past Billings, a rock hit the windshield. Shattered it. She jerked at the wheel, nearly drove off the road. Where the hell did that come from? She slowed the car to a stop and sat til her breathing got down to near normal. The sun caught hold of the edges of exploded glass, turning her windshield into a web of rainbow colors.

In the rearview, she saw something move—back alongside the road, by the loose rocks. Her stomach lurched. Grabbing the gun, she found the safety, clicked it off, willed her legs out of the car, onto the pavement. She walked down the road, scanning the horizon, hair whipping around her eyes.

But it wasn’t there anymore. It was behind her.

Play with dialogue—Overheard, Apocrypha and Abstractions

Probably wasn’t anything could be done about it.

You did everything you could.

When was it? A month ago we talked to him.

Given the circumstances, inevitable.

With what he was mixed up in.

Bound to happen, sooner or later.

Che sera, sera.

But to end up there.

I don’t know what else I could have done.

Did you hear about that thing a couple days earlier?

Why on earth would anyone . . .?

You know, it’s really been hard on Sally.

But she’s been a trooper though it all.

Did the police have to give out so much detail?

Hey, over by the pillar, is that her? Black hat.

These days . . . .

What do you think happens next?

There’ll be questions.

They talked to you yet?

Blonde in the blue dress by the window?

Another one?

By the way, who found him?

They’re not saying.

Think this will change anything?

Nah.

You see anything to drink around here?

 

Open a larger story—A Bottle in the Alley, Blink Ink

A broken bottle, jagged edges refract street light, emerald stripes on a gray lump, on patent leather boots. The figure in boots, now in white orthopedic shoes, walks into a Park Avenue apartment.

“Good morning Miss Chaney. A good night?” the doorman says.

“Profitable, very profitable.”

Strange, for a nurse to put it that way.

A small complete story—Swan Lake, Slice

The mountain of dirty crusted snow was turning to slush. Pedestrians huddled next to buildings to avoid being splashed by careening cars. A bus rumbled to its stop, five feet from the curb, five feet filled with Arctic ice melt. The door opened. A short man in a long, seen-better-days coat peered out, small blue eyes blinking. He moved cat-like to the bottom step. Passers-by saw his turmoil–the near certainty of an ice bath, the slim chance of safety on the sidewalk. He hesitated. Was he going to try? He peered across the chasm, bent his knees, rose on his toes, gracefully arced in a grand jeté, and finished with a delicate landing. The muffled beat of mittens greeted his performance. He bowed deeply. His audience moved on, carrying that balletic movement with them. That touch of theatrical surprise that softens the soul.

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Townsend Walker is a writer living in San Francisco. During a career in finance he published books on foreign exchange, derivatives, and portfolio management. His short fiction has been published in over sixty literary journals and included in seven anthologies. A novella, La Ronde, will be published by Truth Serum Press in Fall 2015. Awards: first place in the SLO NightWriters contest, second place in Our Stories contest, two nominations for the PEN/O.Henry Award. Four stories were performed at the New Short Fiction Series, Hollywood. Educated at Stanford (creative writing and economics), NYU (economics and anthropology) and Georgetown (economics and political science). Website: www.townsendwalker.com.

 

by Andreé Robinson-Neal

Andree-New

Happy 2015! Wait … we still have one 2014 loose end to tie: the Month in Review! In case you were tied up in wrapping paper or long lines, we want to give you a recap of the many bundles of joy our writers offered last month that you might have missed.

Mary-Jane Holmes got us into the spirit with one swan (as compared to seven) and shared how this lovely, creative, random, and original creature can develop into the best flash you’ve ever created. While we might have hoped for six geese to go along with Mary-Jane’s swan, Julie Duffy’s “A Funny Thing” did provide six delightful tips on how to craft a good comedic write. Or was it humor? Go check it out and decide for yourself.

We had no pear trees either but were treated to a peach of a list of flash fiction markets that each offered treasures of their own. Hopefully in between your holiday dinners and gift-giving you had time to write and these markets anxiously await your work. However, if you’re still agonizing over what you got down on that napkin between courses, know that you aren’t alone: James Claffey shared his thoughts on writing flash fiction and you might be re-inspired by his colorful explanation of his relationship to the genre. But if, like those ten lords rumored to have been jumping around for part of last month, you are leaping to submit your collection of flash fiction, check out the ten interview snippets from Bonnie ZoBell, who got the inside scoop on what some flash fiction editors and publishers say about story order. On the other hand, if you’re a few stories short of a collection, why not consider submitting one story to the Queen’s Ferry Press anthology? Jim Harrington got the particulars from editor Tara L. Masih, who shared that these anthologies collect the best and most innovative stories in a given year.

Some of the best gifts you’ll find in FFC are Susan Tepper’s UNCOV/rd pieces. Be sure to check out December’s offering with Harvey Araton, because it will be the last. Don’t worry — Susan will be back this year with something new, but in the meantime, enjoy her conversation with a journalist-author-who-writes-about-a-journalist.

And speaking of newspapers, Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s piece on inspiration was inspired by a recipe in the New York Times. Well, more to the point: the NYT recipe inspired a story and the whole experience inspired the piece. Get it? As Sarah said, inspiration comes from anywhere and you are sure to ponder the sources of your own as you read her December offering.

As our 2014 clock tick-tocked its way to a close, Aliza Greenblatt took a moment to introduce us to the EDF November top author, Angela Hui, whose story Birthday Girl got rave reviews. Before we close the book on 2014 and send our eleven pipers and twelve drummers back to the band, end your year with a laugh: Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s EDF Archive selection is a great topper from Samantha Memi.

Thank you for making 2014 a great year and we hope you’ll join us for more in flash fiction for 2015!

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Andreé Robinson-Neal got bit by the writing bug back in the late 1970s while watching Rod Serling and reading Ray Bradbury—both of whom are everyday inspirations; although she has worked in education for more than a quarter-century, she has never been cured of her penchant for speculative fiction. Find some of her flash fiction at starvingartist.com. She writes under the name AR Neal, who will hopefully one day be identified as a famous NaNoWriMo participant.

 

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