Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Stereotypical Characters

Moving has been hard (as I'm sure most of you already know). I feel like I've been ripped out of my old life and put into this new one, and those old roots went pretty deep. I'm still feeling that loss. I miss my house. I miss our life in Ohio.

Our Ohio house hasn't sold (because of course all this moving happened at the worst possible time for selling houses) and I've been tentatively looking for new houses (although I got an email yesterday from my agent saying he's had to take on a full time job but he's still doing the real estate thing. I haven't decided how I feel about that). My first night out, I found it. First house we looked at. That was the house I wanted to live in. I could see my family there, and it had everything I wanted.

But the next morning, as I went to log on to show my dad pictures of the house, the pictures were gone. The day before the house had gone under contract. I had missed out by a few hours. Everyone keeps telling me this is okay, it wasn't time yet, that we'll find the right house when the time is right, but I'm still kind of grieving for the house. Nothing else quite measures up.

Particularly since it seems like Utah builders are overly fond of very tiny rooms. I haven't figured out why this is yet. Why all the kitchens I've seen could fit inside shoe boxes. Why I can stand in a front den with my arms extended and literally touch both walls. Why bedrooms are only big enough for a bed and a dresser. Why all the floor plans seem to be one giant big room (do people not understand that I need a front formal room closed off from the rest of the house that always stays clean and where visiting and home teachers can come over and sit in and I won't be embarrassed?) Is it because everyone plans to do most of their living in basements (because I will give the builders that - the basements here are ginormous)? I mean, aren't Mormons known for having large families? You would think the builders would put up enormous houses that have room for all the kids you have. Most of the houses I looked at - if we tried to watch a movie in our family room we'd be tripping all over each other. And I can't even begin to imagine what it will be like once they're teenagers and 6'5". We need some room. So I have to find a house that will give me that.

But I've spent a lot of time people watching and listening to the people around me. Living in Utah feels entirely different than going to the Y. It trips me out to hear people talking about the baptisms for the dead they did last week as I walk past them in the store.

Speaking of stores, the other day I was hanging out in the Wal-Mart parking lot waiting for my mom to run in to grab a few things. Guy walks out with a faux-hawk, goatee, shades, upturned collar, and I thought to myself, he's going to get in that orange car with the rear spoiler and the rebel writing on the back window. He did.

The older couple in a suit and dress drove off in a big Cadillac. The bleach blonde with the tight shirt climbed up into the SUV with skull decals. The mom with four kids got into the minivan with the family stickers on the back (you know the kind I'm talking about - where there's a representative sticker for each member of the family on the back window. One time in Ohio we were driving behind a minivan and one of the stickers in the middle had been scraped off. My husband wondered what that kid had done to get yanked off the back of the car. "That's it, your sticker is off the minivan!")

We're constantly told to avoid stereotypes when we're writing, and I accept that as a just principle. Maybe the faux-hawk played classical music on the way home. Maybe the blonde was the stake president's wife. Maybe the minivan mom loves watching horror movies.

And I think that's the reason we're supposed to stay away from stereotypes. On the surface it seems so easy to predict what people will like or say based on how they dress or speak. But the reality is that there's a lot more going on underneath that makes a person (or a character in a story) interesting.

What do you feel about stereotypical characters? Are they unavoidable (especially sometimes in secondary characters)? What do you do to keep your characters from being cliched stereotypes?


At 10/03/2010 11:55 AM, Blogger Debra Erfert said...

Stereotypes played a major role in my son's job as a loss prevention officer up near Salt Lake City this past year. The store (which shall remain nameless) hasn't had any store security since it opened, and it was basically being eaten alive with shoplifting, and also with internal theft. (They call it shrinkage) You wouldn't think that there would be that much thievery going on in the Jello-belt, but, yep!

Anyway, getting back to stereotyping. As bad as it sounds, my son learned from people with decades of law enforcement experience that you follow the creepy looking characters, for the clean-cut, well-dressed people rarely shoplift. Not that it doesn't happen, but just not often. So if that fellow with the faux-hawk would have sauntered into the store--ping! their cameras could have followed him. Or better yet, my son would have booked it down to the floor and shadowed him. Disguised from the church-going elder, with his long sideburns and short goatee and bed-head of hair, (and, yes, he has been stopped by cops and border patrol, probably because he fits a profile;)he’d keep track of the guy from down the racks, at least until faux-hawk wasn't exhibiting any suspicious behavior, like rubbernecking, to see if anyone was watching him. You'd be surprised to see how many criminals look straight up into the little cameras, trying to figure out if it was pointed at them, while stuffing merchandise down their pants. The woman dressed for Sunday just doesn't do that . . . unless you want to write a really good character into your story, which I have. Those types of "out-of-character" characters are great fun.

Point is, there is something to stereotypes. The persona you want to exhibit with the way you dress and the way you wear your hair, and how you mark up your body with tattoos, all of this reveals who you. These are statements to the world, mostly in defiance to the “establishment”, and if we don’t listen, then we may just be turning a blind eye to someone who might reach into our life and hurt us while our back is turned. Might I be cynical? I don’t know, but twisting stereotypes, bad and good, make delicious fodder for a writer, that’s for sure.

At 10/04/2010 12:50 AM, Blogger kbrebes said...

Good luck finding the right home. Don't give up. Keep praying and you'll feel and know the right home. With our first home, when I walked in the front door the owners knew I was the one--and I knew it, too!

At 10/04/2010 10:38 AM, Blogger Michael Knudsen said...

I think one of the main reasons we avoid stereotypes is that they just plain bore people. No one wants to read about someone who is exactly what they look like -- we want characters that are just as unique and exciting as real people - who often do little to dispel stereotypes, but that's because we can't always see INSIDE them, like we can in fiction.

At 10/04/2010 10:54 AM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...

In my opinion, avoiding stereotypes is a catchall that isn't even really true.

Think about it. If none of your characters fit stereotypes, your book will become just as unbelievable as if all your characters were stereotypes. You can work so hard to make all of your characters completely unique that no one relates to them at all.

The important thing is not to avoid stereotypes, but to recognize them and decide how you will use them.

For example, Shandra is a newspaper reporter. The stereotype is that she is super curious. But that's the very thing that gets her into so many situations (and out of them.) I kept that, but I also made her unique in other ways.

Could I have made her an incurious reporter? Of course, and in some ways it could totally have worked. But you'd always be asking your self why someone who didn't want to know things was a reporter.

At 10/06/2010 3:13 PM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

My most important tool when writing villains, and to stay away from too much "cliche" characterization, is to make the reader sympathetic to them in some way. They aren't just bad through and through. They make certain choices for various reasons, and perhaps they are stuck now with the consequences.


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