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Perhaps one of the more difficult parts of writing is making the reader invested in the characters. It's really easy to make your character somebody boring and not interesting to follow in novels. However, it's even more common in novellas.

With novellas, you have 100-250 pages or so to make your reader see the complexity and layers of your character, plot, and settings. Even though 100-250 pages sounds like a lot, it's truly really difficult to repress and character and their layers in only 100 pages. There's also the issue of the reader seeing the complexity of the character, but feeling as if they had rarely spent any time with them or that the time was rushed.

With this being said, what are good tips to making your reader engaged in a character without feeling as if the character was undeveloped/developed, but they didn't spend enough time with the character?

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  • Poor engagement in a character is not the kind of a problem caused by shorter format. There are many and many short stories (not even novellas) in which we are totally invested in a character. Level of character development is normally proportional to the work's length, and if the work is shorter, the development is more concise, and "brighter colors" are commonly used.
    – Alexander
    Mar 15 at 18:31
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The trick I use, is have a duality to every action of the character (I write short stories). Every single thing they do should 1), push the story forward, and 2), give information about the character, or the setting. Here is something I would write when writing novel perhaps:

Paul parked the car, opened the door and stepped out. He closed the door behind him and looked at the abandoned farm house. The wind was blowing trees enough for them to bend, though he was sure it wasn't going to rain. and he remembered a time when he was still a boy here, and played in the fields. He remembered playing with Emily, who at the time was her neighbor, although he hadn't thought about her. She was a good friend, though he didn't care much that he hadn't kept in contact with her. She still lives somewhere in the region, but that wasn't important to him. Without further ado, he took one last drag from his cigarette, extinguished it, and went up to the house, let his hand pass over the wall. It's surface was rough and worn through reminding him of...

Here is the same idea, but with more detail, in fewer words:

Paul parked on the grass, stepped out, ashes from his cigarette carried by the wind. His childhood farmhouse, worn-through with age, reminded him of childhood friends, though they were long gone. He extinguished his Malboro Light on the ground beneath him and followed the path to the house.

Note:

  • Emily isn't important (in my story); the fact that Emily existed, does, hence no description of her
  • Parking on the grass gives a hint on his disrespect for nature. Extinguishing the cigarettes on the ground does as well.
  • Exact brand of cigarette hints at who he is as a person.
  • The fact he follows the path to the house suggests that he has respect for the social customs however.

It is basically a removing of information that doesn't serve less than two purposes, or exchanging generic words to more specific ones in order to convey more than one message. Writing like this, for every single sentence, all the way to the end, will allow plenty of time for a reader to care for the character.

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Cheat:

If you want to deeply engage a reader with a character, it can be done even in a short story. But to do so, you may need to take some short cuts.

  • Stereotypes, clichés and tropes: Rely on the expectations of your reader to fill in the parts of a character you can't/don't want to take the time to fill in. These things are much maligned, but keep getting used because they work. Invoking powerful details that call up complex behaviors lets a reader fill in a lot about the character.

As she walked out the battered door of the home they inherited from their dead parents to go to her AA meeting, her younger brother interrupted her.

He looked at her with profound sadness. "I found the acceptance letter you had hidden in the desk. You never told me you were accepted too. It should be you going to Harvard, not me."

It may not be as rich as detailing it out, but you're on a word budget and need to keep things moving. In two lines, we've established how hard her life was (loss of parents, alcoholism, giving up her dreams to care for a sibling) and that she is bright and self-sacrificing.

  • Low expectations: Keep your character development simple. You may only have a chance to show off PART of the character, so focus on the parts most relevant to the plot and work those. If you are telling a story of betrayal, only focus on why she would be justified betraying someone. If it's about heroics, explain why being brave is extraordinary. But leave the other parts unaddressed. You could take all of War an Peace to fully flesh someone out.
  • Small Cast: If you only have a small space, keep the cast members limited. There may be only one major character, or two characters interacting. If it gets much bigger, the characterization starts to suffer. Other characters should be kept fairly stereotypical, predictable, and cartoonish. They can distract, but they'll never be full characters unless there's a sequel.

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