A common complaint about a fictional character is “He’s too stereotypical.” It can be quite upsetting for a writer to hear this, after trying so hard to create believable characterization. What does the criticism mean, anyway? Is it necessarily bad, and if so, why?
Let’s start by clarifying some terminology. “Stereotype” refers to a characteristic or set of characteristics that are widely identified with a given subset of people. Examples include the bustling motherly fat woman, the gruff but kind-hearted Irish cop and the foul-mouthed Hell’s Angel who commits random violence. A stereotype may be negative or positive, but even positive stereotypes present two problems: They are cliches, and they present a human being as far more simple and uniform than any human being actually is.
But don’t bustling motherly fat women exist in real life? Or gruff but kind-hearted Irish cops? Yes, of course they do, and this is where the writer gets whacked with a literary double whammy: If you put a stereotypical character in your fiction, everyone will accept him as “real,” but half your readers will be bored because they’ve seen him before in countless other stories. In addition, if the stereotype is at all negative, it can be read as indicting an entire group of people: All Italian-Americans are Mafiosi, all blondes have the brains of cabbages, all Arabs are terrorists. Now you have readers not only bored but angry at you for perpetuating damaging prejudices.
On the other hand, if you make your character markedly different from the stereotype, your reader may reject him outright as too outlandish or unbelievable. What’s a frustrated author to do?
You actually have two choices: Enhance the stereotype or play against it with a well-planned strategy.
Enhancing the tired stereotypes
Let’s say your story includes a figure common to both young adult and adult literature: the poor downtrodden child, exploited by her society, who is nonetheless smart and good. You can rescue this Dickensian kid from predictability and triteness by adding additional characteristics to the stereotype. We must see these additional traits right away, however, before we decide that the child is no more than another cookie-cutter version of the type.
Betty Smith does this in chapter one of her modern classic, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Francie Nolan, 10 years old, is indeed poor, good, neglected and smart (by the book’s second paragraph she’s repeating Longfellow’s poetry to herself). We see her doing her family’s Saturday marketing, making compassionate judgments about persecuted minorities and thinking deeply for her age about people’s destinies. But before we can decide that Francie is a stereotype, too good to be true, Smith quickly adds other notes to the portrait. Francie is not above the view of her class and time that money has the right to confer arrogance:
Arriving at the store, she walked up and down the aisles handling any object her fancy favored. What a wonderful feeling to pick something up, hold it for a moment, feel its contour, run her hand over its surface and then replace it carefully. Her nickel gave her this privilege. If a floorwalker asked whether she intended buying anything, she could say yes, buy it, and show him a thing or two.
In chapter one, we also see Francie having a panic attack, and we observe her shoving and screaming in the line for discounted bread. These glimpses of fallibility and selfishness remove her from the ranks of too-simple, too-good fictional children.
What traits does your bustling motherly fat woman have besides being maternal and overweight? Maybe she thinks of herself as sexy and voluptuous and wears bright red underwear. Maybe she scuba dives every chance she gets. Think about characters who might appear stereotypical, develop other sides of them in your mind, and add those details as soon as you can. Then go on developing the details throughout the narrative, and you will end up with a genuine individual.
Playing against type: Using explanation
The other strategy is to show us a character who is the complete opposite of the expected: a murderer who tenderly raises his orphaned nieces, a nice girl from a good family who picks up dangerous men in bars, a successful middle-aged stockbroker who becomes a cloistered nun. There are two ways to make such apparent contradictions plausible.
The first is to show us why the person embodies such contradictions. If we understand the motivation, we are more willing to accept unusual traits or actions. But this cannot be done with a simple declarative statement: “Carl murdered old men who looked like his hated father but was nice to young girls because they reminded him of his loving sister Fran.” Such a truncated explanation will feel thin, unconvincing and even ludicrous.
What is necessary to a successful contradictory character is a lot of wordage: scenes, flashbacks and strong emotion devoted to how this person became so different from the expected. If the character is your protagonist, then his contradictions may be a large part of what the book is about.
That stockbroker-turned-nun is the heroine of Rumer Godden’s novel In This House of Brede. Philippa Talbot is much older than the other novices and much more worldly. She has been married and widowed, has made a lot of money in finance, has had lovers. When Philippa leaves it all and enters a cloistered order, novelist Godden has to provide a strong reason. She does: Philippa’s only child died in a freak mine accident, a prolonged and horrific ordeal that made her question all her values and goals. Three things are notable about how Godden handles this.
First, the event is large enough to be plausible as a motivator for a complete life change. A smaller event, such as a house fire, might not convince.
Second, Keith’s death is not described only once. It is unfolded for us gradually over a few hundred pages so that the horror mounts and we see why it could so affect Philippa.
Finally, we are shown through flashbacks that Philippa always possessed the kind of nature that might lead to a complete life change: passionate, single-minded, solitary, idealistic. We see this in how she mothers her child, attacks her job and relates to her confused young secretary, Penny. We’re willing to accept that even though most stockbrokers would never become nuns, this stockbroker might. (She would never, on the other hand, become an exotic dancer or a political consultant.) The apparent contradiction is within the boundaries the author has set up.
It does not have to be a single event that makes your character act against type. It might be his whole life. In Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar, schoolteacher Theresa Dunn, from a “good family,” ends up killed by a tough she picks up in a bar. There is no one event that caused this self-destructive behavior. Rather, Rossner shows us a lifetime spent feeling inferior and neglected, and so makes us accept that a “nice girl from the right side of town” could act like this.
Playing against type: Using wonder
Another way to make truly unexpected behavior plausible is to omit explanations and have other characters wonder about the actions as much as the reader does. This signals to us that yes, this behavior plays against stereotype, and no, it’s not a mistake on the writer’s part. Instead, it’s just the mysterious and unfathomable side of human nature.
Judy Blume brings this off well in her best-selling Summer Sisters. Caitlin, raised by rich, loving, successful parents is nonetheless as self-destructive as Theresa Dunn. No one knows what Caitlin will do next, including Caitlin, or why. She ruins everything she touches. Author Blume does not attempt to explain why people like this exist. Instead, she has nearly every other character in the book rack their brains trying to figure Caitlin outand fail:
Didn’t Caitlin know how much she was loved? Didn’t she care? … “The next time I see you I get to ask the questions,” [Vix] tells her. Abby thinks, What can she do? You have to be happy for your children even when you don’t understand their decisions.
And so on. Caitlin remains an enigma to the end of the novel, when she may or may not have committed suicide. If you have a character like this, whom you can’t or don’t want to explain, soften his strangeness for your reader by providing plenty of company in wondering how the character can be so strange.
Deepen stereotypes, explain their opposites or wonder at the inexplicablethese strategies will neatly avoid triteness and implausibility.
This article appears in the December 2002 issue of Writer’s Digest.