Tuesday, January 3, 2012

How to Avoid Creating Stereotypical Characters

How to Avoid Creating Stereotypical Characters

So you’ve come up with a genius idea for a new story, you’re itching to get writing, and you’re sure once you’re finished some bigwig in Hollywood is going to get on the phone and ask to turn your piece of fiction into the next blockbuster movie.

But hang on a minute. Have you noticed something? Just in the above paragraph alone we’ve created two rather stereotypical characters:

1. The Writer who thinks theirs is the best idea ever to have been dreamt up.
2. The bigwig Hollywood producer desperate for a new project.

Without hardly having written anything about these two characters, we bet you’ve got an idea of what they look like already set up in your mind’s eye. Let’s see – does the writer chew on the end of their pencil, sit at a desk by a window gazing out at the scene below which they are somehow so far removed from? Is the Hollywood bigwig snacking on a big ring donut, leaning back on his chair in a plush corporate office?
Thought so.

Haven’t we seen these two characters a thousand times before? The answer is yes, because they’re stock characters – or stereotypes. The reader basically already knows their every move, mannerism, and wardrobe choice before the person (who believes they’ve only just been created from the inner recesses of their mind) puts them down on paper.

It’s fair to say that at some point in a writer’s career they’ll have stumbled on, or resorted to using a stereotype. While leaning back on their recliner sectional they’ll have been chewing on that pen for too long, made too many cups of coffee, and because their mind has gone blank, they’ll have resorted to using a stock character. We’ve all been there, we’ve all done it, so how do we go about trying not to fall into that same trap ever again?

In the world around us stereotypes rarely exist. On the surface it might seem like someone’s a stereotype but dig a little deeper and you’re bound to discover that they’ve actually got character traits you’d never have pinned down on them. So first off, do this –

• People watch
Step away from your desk, head out into the real world, grab a coffee at a coffee shop and pitch up at a window seat. Watch people - make notes, notice how people act, behave, respond and describe what they’re wearing.

• Play the Guessing Game
While you’re still in the coffee shop, take a look around you and see if you can guess what people do just by looking at them and watching their mannerisms. Obviously, try and be a little subtle about this – it can get annoying when people are staring for no reason! Then, if you’re brave enough and those people aren’t busy you could simply ask them what they do and see whether you’re right.

• People you Know
Think about people you already know. Jot down notes about them and see how complex they are (or aren’t – depending on the people you mix with!) Could they, at first sight, seem like a bit of a stereotype? If so, think hard about other elements of their character that don’t fit in with this image.

Your Story
Another way to make sure you avoid creating stereotypes in your work is to ensure you are not just using a character to advance a story point.

Most characters in stories need their own story arc – they can’t just appear merely to push the story on.
This might sound like a whole lot of work, but then writing isn’t easy. Characters need to be fully rounded and there for a purpose. If they appear as if from nowhere the reader’s going to know straight away that something’s not right. This character will stick out like a sore thumb. Weave your characters into your story lines and they’ll become the fabric of the tale not just a device.

If in Doubt
Finally, if you’re in any doubt you think you’ve created a stereotypical character, take a long hard look at them. If they really are as two-dimensional as you think, then it’s time to pull them apart and build them back together again. For a list of questions to ask your characters have a look at this character questionnaire. Once you’ve answered all these questions you’ll have worked out who your character is and got past those stereotypical tendencies.


Donna M. McDine said...

Great article, I especially like the exercises!

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Award-winning Children’s Author
The Golden Pathway Story book Blog
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Sybil Nelson said...

What a great post! I think the hardest characters to make three dimensional are villains. There are so many 2D villains out there.