How to Write a Short Story Based on a Strong Character

Step-by-Step Instructions for Beginners

Woman writing with pen
(Adrian Samson/Photodisc/Getty Images)

There are as many ways to write a short story as there are short stories themselves. But if you're writing your first short story and don't quite know where to begin, one useful strategy is to build your story around a compelling character.

1. Develop a Strong Character

Write down as many details as you can think of about your character. You can start with basic information, like the character's age, gender, physical appearance, and residence. Beyond that, it's important to consider personality. What does your character think when she looks in the mirror? What do other people say about your character behind her back? What are her strengths and weaknesses? Much of this background writing will never appear in your actual story, but if you know your character well, your story will fall into place much more easily.

2. Decide What the Character Wants More Than Anything

Maybe he wants a promotion, a grandchild, or a new car. Or maybe he wants something more abstract, like the respect of his co-workers or an apology from his next-door neighbor. If your character doesn't want something, you don't have a story.

3. Identify the Obstacle

What is preventing your character from getting the thing she wants? This might be a physical obstacle, but it could also be social norms, the actions of another person, or even one of her own personality traits.

4. Brainstorm Solutions

Think of at least three ways your character could get what he wants. Write them down. What was the first answer that popped into your head? You probably need to cross that one out, because it's also the first answer that will pop into your reader's head. Now look at the two (or more) solutions you have left and choose the one that seems most unusual, surprising, or just plain interesting.

5. Choose a Point of View

Many beginning writers find it easiest to write a story using first person, as if the character is telling his or her own story. In contrast, third person often moves a story along more quickly because it eliminates conversational elements. Third person also gives you an opportunity to show what's going on in multiple characters' minds. Try writing a few paragraphs of the story in one point of view, then rewriting them in another point of view. There is no right or wrong point of view for a story, but you should try to determine which point of view suits your purpose best.

6. Begin Where the Action Is

Get your reader's attention by jumping right in with an exciting part of the plot. That way, when you go back to explain the background, your reader will know why it's important.

7. Assess What's Missing From Steps 2-4

Look over the opening scene that you've written. In addition to introducing your character, your opening probably reveals some of the information from steps 2-4, above. What does the character want? What prevents him from getting it? What solution will he try (and will it work)? Make a list of the main points your story still needs to get across.

8. Consider the Ending Before You Continue Writing

How do you want readers to feel when they finish your story? Hopeful? Despondent? Apprehensive? Do you want them to see the solution work? To see it fail? To leave them wondering? Do you want most of the story to be about the solution, only revealing the character's motivation at the very end?

9. Use Your List From Steps 7-8 as an Outline

Take the list you made in Step 7 and put the ending you chose in Step 8 at the bottom. Use this list as an outline to write a first draft of the story. Don't worry if it's not perfect -- just try to get it down on the page, and console yourself that writing is mostly about revision, anyway.

10. Use Subtle, Varied Strategies for Revealing the Information

Instead of openly stating that Harold wants a grandchild, you might show him smiling at a mother and child at the grocery store. Instead of openly stating that Aunt Jess won't let Selena go to the midnight movies, you might show Selena sneaking out her window while Aunt Jess snoozes on the couch. Readers like to figure things out for themselves, so don't be tempted to over-explain.

11. Flesh out the Story

You should now have the skeleton of a story -- a beginning, middle, and end. Now go back and try to add details and improve the pacing. Have you used dialogue? Does the dialogue reveal something about the characters? Have you described the setting? Have you given enough details about your strong character (developed in Step 1) that your reader will care about him or her?

12. Edit and Proofread

Before you ask anyone else to read your work, make sure your story is as polished and professional as you can get it.

13. Get Feedback From Readers

Before you try to get a story published or to present it to a large audience, test it on a smaller group of readers. Family members are often too kind to be genuinely helpful. Instead, choose readers who like the same kinds of stories you do, and whom you can trust to give you honest and thoughtful feedback.

14. Revise

If your readers' advice resonates with you, you definitely should follow it. If their advice doesn't quite ring true, it might be fine to ignore it. But if multiple readers keep pointing out the same flaws in your story, you need to listen to them. For instance, if three people tell you that a certain paragraph is confusing, there's probably some truth to what they're saying.

Keep revising, one aspect at a time -- from dialogue to description to sentence variety -- until the story is exactly the way you want it.


  • Reading your story aloud is an easy way to discover typos and grammatical errors. In addition, it can reveal places where the action either drags or moves too quickly. It can also help you shape the dialogue.
  • Time is one of the best editors. Putting the story aside for a few days can reveal problems that were formerly invisible to you -- and can give you the energy to address those problems!
  • Recognize the difference between what's in your head and what's on the page. If one of your readers raises a question, don't try to answer it by verbally explaining what you meant to write. The only way to answer the question is by writing.