When writing a short story, detailed character description is only really necessary when you need to emphasize a character’s looks. Most of the time, you can give a short description of a character that infers a look in the mind’s eye of the reader…In other words, let their imagination fill in the rest.
Why do this?
The answer is simple: length of story. In a novel or novella, you want a detailed description of your character early on, because your readers will be invested in that character for quite some time. A short story, however, does not have that luxury, especially horror.
Characters tend to die in horrible ways in short horror, so unless you are being paid by the word, wasting character description on someone that’s going to go quickly is a waste of time.
So how do you infer character description?
Well, when you introduce a group of characters to a story, usually their names, sex, and an age or age range are the base things you need to add. You might also add a couple of defining features to them, such as the color of their hair and eyes or an article of clothing. Their attitude, intelligence, and actions can also be inferred, but remember to keep the descriptions short.
Here’s an example:
Tommy did not know what his contribution to the gang really was. He was more of a thinker than anything else, but that was all he felt like he brought to the table. Still, the others relied on him for figuring out complicated problems, but he was not good in a pinch, not like Jerry was.
Maybe it was the fact that he was the only one that wore glasses, or maybe it was the regurgitation of the random knowledge he’d obtained by reading through his dad’s new set of ’54 encyclopedias, but the others considered him to be “the smart one,” so that was his designation, and he was stuck with it.
From the description above, we know that Tommy is in a “gang,” he’s male, he wears glasses, and he’s considered the smart one of a group that also has someone named Jerry in it. We also know the year is 1954 because of the encyclopedias mention, and though the exact year might not seem like character description, it actually is, as we can infer Tommy’s dress and style through the lens of the 1950s as a whole.
Also, this is the longest inferred description here, as Tommy is the protagonist of this story, and the story is from his point of view. Unless you’re being ironic or clever in some way, or unless someone other than the protagonist is very important in some way, the protagonist of a story should usually get the most description out of a host of characters.
If you still don’t think your readers will get the gist of your character, you can always infer more information with short character description from other characters.
Here’s another example:
Jerry was the leader of their little gang. He always had a plan when it came to getting out of trouble, and right now, everyone was in trouble for breaking Mr. Gordon’s window.
They looked up to Jerry, because he wore the navy-blue limited-edition Captain Cosmo hat, and you could only get one of those by having one of the coveted Captain Cosmo Side Kick Club memberships, and considering that club had been disbanded last year, those ballcaps were more valuable than gold for any ten-year-old.
As you can see in the example above, we can infer that Jerry is a boy, he’s probably ten, he’s the leader of a group of children, and he wears a Captain Cosmo hat. This, of course, implies that Tommy is also a child.
We can also tell that the gang is in trouble for breaking a window, but this is part of the overall plot, not character description. It’s thrown in with character description as a clever way to advance the story.
Let’s give one more example of the gang:
Doug was the big one of their gang, and he was also the oldest; they’d all gone to his eleventh birthday party in June. Doug was chunky in the waist and face, but he was also their muscle, so if something needed to be picked up, pushed, pulled, or ripped open, Doug was your man.
Now we have three characters in our little story, and we have more information about the gang in general. We now know about the character “Doug,” the “chunky one,” and we also know that he’s the oldest, being eleven. That means the rest of the gang has to be ten or younger.
We can add more members to the gang, or we can leave it at three, but the point here is how to quickly introduce characters for the purposes of the plot.
Notice that I never mentioned ethnicity within the character descriptions. Because this story is going to be set in the 1950s, we can assume (historically speaking) that the characters are Caucasian, but because I never mentioned any last names, our characters don’t necessarily have to be white. Inferring short descriptions like this is a great way to allow a reader to place their own preferences upon the characters in the story.
So what about detailed character description? How do we do that in a short horror story?
Detailed character description is only necessary in short horror when it furthers the plot of the story. Such definitive details should hold some significance or should be important later on.
Here’s an example:
Chrissy was a bombshell. She was a natural blonde of German and Irish descent, five-foot-ten, around twenty-five-years-old, with ocean-blue eyes and an hourglass figure that was to die for. She had on a slimline rose-red dress with petal frills along the low bust line, and the equally frilly hem of her form-fitting dress was way above the knees, a minimal cover for what was below her navel. Her hair was done up in the Greek style of braided loops, those braids bedecked with small silver studs that sparkled under the dim lighting. That, combined with her long and flawless legs and her perfect feet set within a pair of expensive strap red heels, made her an idol to drool over.
Still, Robert had an alarming sense about her, something off, something not quite registering as “normal.” It was the palpable glow in her pupils, a tinge of predatory glare that ate at him, that aura like a beast that was contained but only barely, and this made him wary, though his best man, Marcus, did not quite share his hesitation in introduction.
Maybe it was the lighting, or maybe Chrissy was slightly ill, but her skin was pale, very pale, not quite albino, but definitely not normal. If she were anemic, Robert really didn’t know, but there was definitely something “off” about her that raised a red flag; it was an animal instinct on Robert’s part, a primal warning buried in his subconscious that screamed at him to never be alone with the woman in any setting.
The description above details Chrissy in a distinct way that leaves an impact on readers, just as much as it’s left an impact on Robert. We can clearly see Chrissy in our mind’s eye, and we can also tell that she has a kind of sinister aura about her thanks to Robert’s further inspection of her profile, one that’s raised his hackles for some reason.
From the description above, Chrissy’s details are really important to the plot. Maybe she’s a succubus, a vampire, or something else otherworldly, or maybe she’s a serial killer, but her details are important for the story as a whole. We know that’s she’s beautiful, but that beauty could be a lure for something sinister.
Detailed descriptions are great, but unlike short inferred descriptions of characters, such detail doesn’t allow a reader to place much of their own preference upon the described character, but it does give the reader a clear image of whom they are reading about.
Note: This doesn’t apply to creatures or monsters or other such threats. Because you’re writing short horror, such things should always be described in detail unless you intentionally make them indescribable (such as with Cosmic/Eldritch Horror).
From the examples above, Chrissy’s detailed description is 257 words long, while all three of the inferred descriptions of the gang of kids—all three together—is only 254 words long.
You can, of course, throw in detailed descriptions of every character that you will ever write, because that’s your prerogative, but ofttimes overall wordcount matters when it comes to readers looking for a quick read. Some readers like the high wordcounts because they want to curl up with a book or just read off of a screen as if they were curling up with a book, but it’s typical of readers reading off of a small screen (such as a phone) to like shorter stories that range between 1000-3000 words.
In closing, I hope this information helps you on your writing journey, and my advice is and always has been: keep putting out those stories. There is no shortage of fans of short horror out there.
How to Write Short Horror #1: Character Description Copyright © 2023 Matthew L. Marlott