Sunday, October 19, 2014

Creating Believable Characters: Silence the Stereotypes

Stereotypes are everywhere.  No matter how well read, open minded or educated (street smarts included) an author may be, they are bound to encounter stereotypes.  They are everywhere: TV, radio, movies, and even literature.  Don't get me wrong, they actually do have their place (more on that later and for another post), yet to create a believable character, writers have to shrug off the temptation to resort to stereotypes.

Last week I spent the better part of four days in trial.  The reasons or facts behind the trial itself aren't important, the people who ultimately played a vital role in the process - the jury - were the ones who really mattered.  Some attorneys hate the jury selection process, whereas I find the whole thing very fascinating.  When it's done right, you transform thirty reluctant souls who would do anything to be anywhere else into more than two dozen people who end up sharing their life story in varying degrees of willingness.  The things you can learn from listening to the trials and triumphs of others not only puts life into perspective, it shaves away at the preconceived notions you may have had at the beginning of the conversation.  

As an example, we tend to look at older men and women as falling into one or two stereotypes: either kindly grandparents, or bitter grumps waiting for the grim reaper.  Certain these types of people exist; however, there are a number of folks that fit into the middle of the spectrum.  How much more interesting does that silver haired older man become when we find out that he goes surfing every chance he gets and has embraced a "beach" lifestyle?  This, naturally, raises questions about whether he's lived on or near the beach his whole life, or is he a retiree that's always dreamed of living near the water.  Also, just how far does this particular person take the lifestyle: is he conservative or a liberal; does he drive around in a scooter or a luxury SUV; and is he still married to his high school sweetheart, or dating a new and younger woman every month?  Regardless, from a writing perspective a character with this back story has now become more three dimensional, and possibly more interesting/memorable to readers.  

One of the other interesting takeaways from last week's trial was that appearances can be deceiving.  This is another reason to break stereotypes.  People who appear to be in their late thirties or early forties might be much older.  Hair coloring products aren't the only trick in the book, though some people eschew plastic surgery and seem to get amazing results with healthy eating and exercise.  Likewise, someone who seems young and inexperienced may have walked down different roads that we'd expect from someone ten years older.  This may come in the form of a young twenty-something woman who is struggling to keep a roof over her head, while caring for her mother after a debilitating stroke or injury.  Did she give up a better paying job in order to have flexible hours to take care of her mom?  Did her mother get sick or hurt early on such that her daughter never really had much of a chance to build up a career or income?  More importantly, how have these struggles affected the daughter and her outlook on life?  As I learned from last week's jury selection process, family member care giving seems to exact a heavy toll regardless of the care giver's age.  You may have noticed by now that I haven't mentioned race as a component for any of the above examples.  This is because none of the above are exclusive to any particular race or ethnic group.  The same can be said for gender, which tends to foster its own stereotypes to the detriment of both characters and readers.

When I wrote "Of Murder and Monsters," I wanted to throw out some of the stereotypes that are usually associated with Hispanic characters.  Sean Valdez doesn't speak with an accent, and doesn't have a perfect tan or dark features.  He's not living high on the hog, or getting by in a run down neighborhood.  While he's going through marital problems, infidelity, a wandering eye or machismo bordering on abuse are not the roots of his marriage woes.  While any of the above stereotypes could serve as subplot fodder, they also tend to have a watered down affect on the character.  Doing so makes your main and supporting characters predictable, flat and boring, which in turn will likely have a negative impact on your story.  By casting aside the stereotypes, you free your characters to do the heavy lifting that needed in order to move the plot and help you tell a believable tale.  

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