Canada Writes·Writing Tip

Writing a short story? Give your characters some breathing room

If you're entering the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize, author Philip Huynh has some advice for you!
The 2021 CBC Short Story Prize is open until Oct. 31, 2020. (Photo by on Unsplash)

The 2021 CBC Short Story Prize is open for submissions. You can submit your original, unpublished short stories up to 2,500 words for a chance to win $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and have your work published on CBC Books.

The deadline to enter is Oct. 31, 2020.

To inspire and support you along the way, we are publishing a writing tip each week on CBC Books. You can also subscribe to our writing tips newsletter for even more tips.

This week's tip is from Philip Huynh.

"A common criticism in writing workshops is that a character behaves in a manner that somehow doesn't make sense. For example:

'She's a teenager – no way she would listen to everything her mother tells her!'

'He's a nightclub bouncer. He wouldn't have season tickets to the ballet!'

They may be more complicated than first meets the eye and may ultimately serve your story in surprising and refreshing ways.

"Sometimes these criticisms are valid, particularly when a character is forced to do something against their nature simply to satisfy a plot requirement.

"But often they merely have the insidious effect of reinforcing stereotypes.

"People can act in ways that are out of character or don't make sense. I say follow your characters' lead, and give them some breathing room to define themselves, whether or not their behaviour makes sense to you.

"They may be more complicated than first meets the eye — and may ultimately serve your story in surprising and refreshing ways."

Philip Huynh is an author and lawyer who lives in Richmond, B.C. His short story collection, The Forbidden Purple City, features nine stories where Huynh explores the diverse experiences of the Vietnamese diaspora. Among his characters are poets, outcast private school teenagers, a lonely young bride and a son shocked by his father's secrets. CBC Books named Huynh a writer to watch in 2019.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.