Essay: "On Short Story Characters" by Sam Reese

‘The quiet power of these stories lies in their intimacy and tenderness.’

– Naomi Booth, author of Exit Management

‘An ardent observer of the understated, Reese’s expansive stories amplify life’s quiet

moments in crisp, clear prose. A bright, new collection that glimmers and shines.’

– Ryan Ridge, author of New Bad News

‘A book of richly detailed place, with characters that are afraid, and searching, and determined, and flawed, and utterly, finally, human, Reese has given us a handful of jewels, flashing bright under a grey sky. I savoured every word.’

– Lindsay Hunter, author of Eat Only When You’re Hungry

OUT:14th Sept. 2021 · paperback original ·

978-1-913007-13-3 · £10 · 192 pages

Three times, now, I’ve written a short story that has made me think, this is good. This has promise. Perhaps this could be a novel. Three times, after teasing out, stretching and expanding I have reached the limits of the story’s elasticity. Three times I have had to let the story contract back in. It is not because I lack some quality of novel writing in and of myself, but because the kind of characters I had developed were short story characters, intimately tied up with the structure of the form.

I am not referring to the cliché that the short story is about an individual, the novel about a community—there are too many good examples of both forms that puncture this ‘rule.’ What I mean is that, in the short story, the writer’s focus has to be so narrow, the scope of the narrative so limited, the choice of words so much more magnified than in a novel, that it is impossible to talk about a character without thinking about how their story has been told. Style, tone, the underlying architecture: all are tied up with the process of characterisation. This relationship is most obvious in the work of writers like Lydia Davis or Diane Williams. “As usual I’d hung myself with snappy necklaces,” one of Williams’ narrators tells us—and immediately we are immersed in their characters’ voice. Bereft of background information, and with any larger plot only hinted at in the edges of what such characters say, these short stories are all character. Instead of gradually building up an understanding of histories, lives, we are immersed in an alien psychology and way of looking at the world.

But even when a short story looks, at first glance, like a closer cousin to the novel—a third person narrator, say, sketches out more detailed histories, perhaps introduces several characters to us—the form of the story still dictates the limits of those characters (and vice versa). Look at Chekov’s much more distant set-pieces, with all of the stage directions and distinctive props of a dramaturge, or Maupassant’s carefully plotted interactions and well-balanced pairings of characters. Across the work of early masters of the form—and of much more recent writers, like Alice Munro, whose short fiction frequently breaks all of the conventions that limit the number of characters and the scale of time a short story can accommodate—short story characters insistently drive structure and style, wrapping the form around themselves. For all of their depth, Maupassant or Munro’s characters cannot be extracted, like a novelistic protagonist, from their form and made into something abstract. This is also why so much can be removed from these characters’ biographies—readers open a short story knowing they will only get a limited view of the people that they meet.

Like most other fiction writers, I have been asked (several times) how autobiographical my own stories are. Often, at least on the surface, this feels like an uninteresting question. It’s true that certain settings and situations draw on my own experiences—but the process of transforming those moments, memories, emotions, desires into a separate character, and then working them into a narrative that moves, shifts, and feels complete—well, that process reframes the event and estranges it from me. As a writer, I tend to be much more interested in what happens at this point—how those memories or feelings connect to the new questions they are set beside; what those desires might mean inside a different context, in a new relationship.

But it occurred to me that, in my new collection, on a distant ridgeline, there is one repeated detail that links the characters—and links them back to me. The stories keep circling back towards the image of drowning. Sometimes this is just as subtle as the distant sound of water, a river the characters hear churning at night. Sometimes it is much more obvious—a flooded mineshaft, a body at the base of a waterfall, a freediving mishap. And in some stories it is in the imagery instead—the watery blindness of cataracts, a play that stages the decent and return from the underworld, uncanny memories of being in the womb. As I wrote the stories, I was focused on this motif as a way of connecting to a central question: how do we relate to the world around us? (This relationships is signalled by the title of story that gives part of its name to the whole collection: “A Lone Figure on a Distant Ridgeline.”) Only later could I see that in this image I was also working through the most autobiographical element in the collection—a memory of the closest I have ever come to death.

I was sixteen when I blacked out at the bottom of a pool. I was not quite as masochistic as a couple of my characters, who are competitive free divers—instead, I was training for underwater hockey. In case you haven’t come across it, underwater hockey is played on the bottom of a pool with shortened sticks and a lead puck, and relies on lung capacity to keep you in play. It enjoys a surprising level of popularity in Aotearoa where I grew up, and the year I nearly drowned, I was in a team that won the national school competition as well as a regional men’s squad. Why do I keep drawing on this experience in my stories? After all, none of my characters play underwater hockey themselves; this is not a case of needing to clear away some personal baggage. I think it is because it was an experience I could not understand. An absence, something close to death, but different. Each time that it recurs in my stories, this absence means something different to the characters in that particular piece—or, rather, a mass of things. The shadows of the story, felt but not completely understood, or even knowable.

This core of unknowability is at the heart of how I understand short story characters, and signals my biggest departure from the two classic theories of the short story form. The first is James Joyce’s concept of the epiphany, which has become so firmly embedded that you cannot come across a book on short stories without a reference to ‘the moment of illumination.’ The idea that the short story moves towards a sudden moment where the character or reader is given a flash of insight into something central to the story is, no doubt, attractive. I cannot help but think of the little lamp in Katherine Mansfield’s masterpiece, “The Doll’s House,” which amplifies a small moment of contact and care into something much more powerful and moving. The second is Ernest Hemingway’s ‘iceberg theory,’ which tries to make sense of all the things a story does not say. According to Hemingway, if a writer chooses to omit certain things they know about a character or circumstances, it will give the story a deeper heft and weight—like the nine tenths of an iceberg floating underneath the surface.

Both of these explanations go some way to explaining that knotted tie between character and structure in the short story—but neither of them has ever left me satisfied. Putting aside how well either model matches up to the reality of the short story as it is written today, both reduce the story to a kind of puzzle or equation. Only reading short fiction for a moment of illumination turns the tale into something either didactic or overly moralising, and would mean that you would miss all the interesting tangents and odd details that make a story like “The Doll’s House” more complex than just the image of the little lamp. And if you approach a story along Hemingway’s submerged lines, then it reduces the reading to a kind of algebraic equation: substitute the missing information for the blank ‘x’s, and you reach a neat solution. Both theories explain why the short story is so often taught at schools—it offers a way of treating literature like maths—and why so many students come to hate the form. Unlike a novel, which can simply tell an interesting story, short fiction approached these ways needs to have a point, an answer.

As a writer and a reader of short fiction, I am interested in the counterweight to Joyce’s light and Hemingway’s hidden, lurking presence. Short stories are at their most interesting, I think, when they avoid just a single meaning. This is why I direct my own writing out towards the darkness and the shadows—why my characters obsess over, dream of, are haunted by feeling and memories that they do not completely understand. I try to build my stories not around a deeper presence that is there, just beneath the surface, but around gaps, spaces that cannot be known. When I first read Cormac McCarthy’s dictum that literature has to “deal with issues of life and death,” I remember bristling (I prefer Larry McMurtry, I ought to disclose). Like most literary rules, it sent my mind racing to the great examples that defied it. But the longer that I’ve sat with it, the more I’ve come around to it—at least, in an expanded sense. Literature allows us to probe, question, and explore the things that shape our lives, and the things that we are least able to understand.

The short story allows writers to do this in a peculiar way. Think about the way the narrow framing of a story amplifies a writer’s choice of words. In the same way, a short story takes those absences and spaces we don’t understand and makes them grow. Swiss short story writer Peter Stamm’s characters illustrate this well. Propelled by desires that seem to run against the grain of their character, they lurch into sudden, compulsive actions they are unable to account for, or drawn into the orbit of other people who remain a mystery to them, despite time and closeness. From this perspective, Joyce and Hemingway were both right; good short stories work because of a process of expansion, an opening outwards. But the most interesting short story characters are not the ones who solve their problems, not the ones whose psychology we can neatly picture by joining the writer’s dots. They are the ones who reframe our own fears, our own shadows, the ones who expand the gaps in what we know and force us to look at them in a different way.

In his second collection, on a distant ridgeline,

Sam Reese creates twelve vivid and tenderly

drawn tales with moments and memories

that linger just out of reach. Between the

past and present and potential reconciliations

—and with a keen eye on the subtle balance

of human connection—relationships and

their fractured qualities are central to this

new gathering of stories.

Hailing from Aotearoa, Sam Reese is an award-

winning writer, critic, and teacher. Currently a

lecturer in creative writing at York St John

University, he is the author of the short story

collection Come the Tide and non-fiction books

on jazz, literature and loneliness, American

short fiction, and Cold War politics.

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