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How To Create Memorable Characters for Your Short Story

May 14, 2024
7 min read time

Crafting memorable characters is the first step in writing engaging short stories. As the reader, we are choosing to spend a brief period of time inside the head of the main character, going on an emotional ride with them that may bring us a new perspective on life, like the resilience of human nature. Although the wants and needs of your protagonist drive the plot forward, all the characters, including your antagonist and any supporting characters, should each leave a lasting impression.

Here's a guide on how to create unforgettable characters for your short story using examples from The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.

Read More: How To Outline Your Short Story

Character Names

Character names are very important when creating memorable characters. They should be unique enough to stand out among other characters but also relate thematically.

At the heart of The Old Man and the Sea is Santiago, an elderly Cuban fisherman who embodies resilience despite his physical and emotional struggles. Santiago is the Spanish name for Saint James, one of the apostles of Jesus in the Bible who was also a fisherman.

By adding this biblical connection, the name creates a symbolic link to sainthood, sacrifice, and humility, and implies these qualities also inhabit Santiago.

The Old Man (Spencer Tracy) on a boat in 'The Old Man and the Sea' (1958)

Character Backgrounds

Before writing an outline for your short story, take the time to think through the history of your characters and what has led them to the situation they are in currently. If they are young, the story will likely fall into the coming-of-age genre. This means they will experience a defining moment in this story that will send them on a new path. For these characters, define their financial background, family dynamic, and superficial goals.

If the character is older, it’s likely something in their history (war, loss of a loved one, financial crisis, or natural disaster) has led to their current survival tactics or coping mechanisms that may no longer work for them. If they don’t change, they will stagnate or even die.

Early in The Old Man and the Sea, we learn that Santiago once lived in the Canary Islands and fondly remembers those colorful sights and comforting smells in his dreams. We also learn he had a wife, but instead of keeping a picture of her hanging on the wall, he keeps her photo under a clean shirt “because it made him too lonely to see it.” Losing his wife was a painful event for him, and the other details about his background tell the reader he once had a full life, but things are no longer colorful or comforting. He is an old man and must accept his limitations, or he will die.

To be clear, you don’t need to include every single detail of the character’s history in the story. As the writer, you need to know how their background will inform the choices they make.

Create Compelling Relationships

Every relationship in your short story should tell the reader something important about the main character. Manolin is Santiago's young apprentice who’s been going fishing with him since he was just five years old. Manolin cares deeply for Santiago and sees him as a father figure.

Through Manolin, we learn that Santiago is a patient, kind man who looked after him since he was a small boy, making Santiago a compassionate character. Manolin’s patience for the aging, impoverished Santiago adds depth to their relationship and underscores the importance of generational connection.

Two people in a boat on the ocean in 'Black Mother,' How To Create Memorable Characters for Your Short Story

Give Your Characters Flaws

Flawed characters are often the most relatable and memorable. Ask yourself: Are they in denial about themselves? Do they have an obsessive nature? Do they always put other people’s needs before their ownor vice versa? Give your characters imperfections and vulnerabilities that make them human. These flaws add depth and complexity, making them more compelling and adding conflict to the story.

After not catching any fish for 85 days, Santiago goes out to sea and hooks a large marlin. He obsessively focuses on reeling it—no matter the physical toll it will take on him, possibly even killing him. Though he harpoons the marlin, a series of sharks come to eat it.

Santiago’s flaw is overestimating his ability to fish alone at his advanced age. He’s headstrong, but being an independent, solo fisherman is no longer an option for him. Like the marlin, he will soon be just bones, but his extreme determination and lack of self-awareness keep him from accepting the truth.

Not All Characters are Human

Sometimes, an animal, a place, an object, or a force of nature can become a main character. In The Old Man and the Sea, the sea is a character with a distinct personality and presence. Hemingway's descriptions of the sea's ever-changing moods and rhythms give it a sense of mystique and power. The sea serves as both a source of sustenance and a menacing antagonist for Santiago, testing his skill and endurance.

Santiago's deep connection to the sea allows for the exploration of themes of isolation, introspection, and the cyclical nature of life. The sea also becomes a metaphor for the human experience, simultaneously offering opportunities for renewal and posing challenges that must be overcome.

Read More: Setting: It's Much More Than Just a Simple Slug Line

A young boy looking over the ocean in 'Road to Perdition'

Show, Don't Tell

Reveal your characters' traits, motivations, and relationships through their actions and interactions with others. Show how they respond to challenges, conflicts, and opportunities, rather than simply telling readers about their traits.

Santiago gets into a physical struggle with the huge fish. His refusal to cut the line and give up on the fish tells us who he is: optimistic, determined, and obsessed. Though he’s not afraid of the powerful forces in the sea, the sharks eating his catch actively show the reader that this time, our protagonist cannot overcome the power of nature.

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Creating memorable characters is the best place to start when writing captivating short stories. By focusing on character development, depth, relationships, and flaws, you can craft characters that resonate with readers long after they've finished your story.

Read More: How to Make Your Characters Sound Different on the Page

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