Thursday, December 8, 2011

Type. Type. (Stereo)Type: Taming the Familiar Beast


 The shoot-first-ask-questions-later ex cop. The dangerous dame. The cocky action hero. The heavy. The bumbling sidekick. The trusty driver. If you’re a fan of the pulps, whether original or new pulp, you’ve met these character types over and over again.

Pulp is built on stereotypes. The bodies of dozens of them lay mixed in the cement that has become the foundation for this certain type of tale. It's why the stories don't need so much build up and have the freedom to jump straight into the action like they do. It’s why they don’t bog down in the “slow syrup” of all that quagmire of slow pacing that so often comes when a writer takes the time for in-depth character development.

But even in a genre so filled with and reliant upon stereotypes, isn’t using them… well, dangerous for a writer? Aren't we taught that it’s just sloppy writing? Isn’t relying on stereotypes the opposite of writing believable characters? Or are they somehow stock and trade for pulp stories anyway?

 Can a writer find what’s useful in the stereotypes and discard that stuff that hurts a story?

 To find out, I went straight to the horses’ mouths (you know, metaphorically speaking, since real horses can’t type very well with their hooves) and asked some of the hardest working writers in the new pulp movement today what they thought.

How do you make the stereotypes work for the story and for you as a writer?

Don Thomas: I like to think that stereotypes are like the Reader's Digest versions of people.  It's generally just that top layer of most human beings.  And if that's all your doing, if it's just writing about a person that the protagonist has hardly do with besides just scratching the surface, than it's perfectly fine.  Much like a movie some people play lead, some people play supporting, and some people don't even get to utter even a simple word.  In my opinion stereotypes are the most useful for the characters in your book that probably would be played by extras or illiterate models.

Ian Watson: Stereotypes work as shorthand. For background cast the bumbling police officer, the snooty butler, the interfering aunt are easy ways of furnishing a scene without stopping to flesh out a huge backstory. For foreground cast stereotypes aren't as good, but archetypes work very well. the classic archvillain's daughter bad girl or the down-at-heel investigator have such wide applicability that they can be used again and again without seeming like reruns.

Stereotypes work to confirm or confound plot expectations. Of course the school bully's going to turn out cowardly when the aliens attack the gym class; only our nerdy hero will keep his wits and stand up to them; or else the school bully will prove unexpectedly brave and sacrifice his life so our hero can escape and save the day. Again its a quick way of moving forward and getting to the next story beat.

As a writer one tries to control the flow of the narrative, here fast, here slow, here dialogue, here action and so on, like a composer puts together different parts of a symphony. All out action all the time gets pretty one-note. "Down-time" and reflective bits, tension-ramping quiet pauses, "character" moments all serve their place to set up climaxes. Stereotypes can aid with pacing. They can be used to easily assemble a scenario. They're the pre-cut fuzzy felt of writing.

A quick word here about stereotype situations as well. Many stereotype characters come with "stock" situations which can also be helpful in certain circumstances. The harassed overworked cop probably has a drinking problem and marital difficulties. The beautiful; torch singer inevitably has some man what's done her wrong and a sad shady past. In some ways its the reader's expectations of these stereotype characters' backstories that do the work for us. Using them is another way of engaging the audience's imagination to paint in the details. not only do text stories have the best visual effects, they have the richest histories, both sourced from the reader's own brain.

Andrea Judy: I like using stereotypes to create the basis of the story, something that can be easily explained and understood. 'Cowboy battles to save his hometown and rescue his childhood sweetheart.' That's something I can easily explain in a very short period of time to a reader, editor or publisher. I don't have to explain who or what a cowboy character is, just the simple thought of a cowboy tells the basics of the story: the West, gun fights, horse riding, tough guy, beautiful damsel in distress etc. My job as a writer is to take these expectations and craft a story. That doesn't mean I have to use all of them, but I have to be aware of them. I can't describe a cowboy story and instead write a story about a boat captain. My job is to craft a story that is aware of these expectation but that rises above them to create something unique, something that will keep the reader turning the page because they don't know what's going to happen. 

Lee Houston Jr.: That there are certain, established (stereo)types is without question. And there are MANY subtypes once you get past the basic divisions of hero, villain, man, or woman.

It's the more specific nuances of combining details and traits that make the characters. Being the writer, you can develop them however you like. The only limitation is your imagination. For example, you have a detective. But where does the detective operate? That automatically affects at least the kind of cases they handle, if not any immediate impact upon the character. What kind of person is this detective? Gender, nationality, species, etc. all play their part in shaping who you're writing about into the person they are. Does he/she respect the law? Does being who they are present more problems in trying to solve a mystery than it creates? Are they a "morning" person? How do they react to weather changes?

Nancy Hansen: Because I write mostly fantasy pulp, and I do a lot of series work set in my own worlds, I deal with stereotyping all the time. There is kind of a tightrope walk involved to keep each tale within the expectations of mainstream fantasy fans as well as making sure the pulp factor is intrinsic. Fantasy readers expect a complex world setting with well-drawn heroes and villains that are more than simple archetypes. Pulp fans want a straightforward plot that moves rapidly, has plenty of action, and not a lot of character introspection or intrusive narration bogging things down. Sometimes it can be hard to please both camps, and the longer the story, the tougher it gets. But I don't want to alienate either group, so I have to be uber-creative and give them each a big bellyful of what makes their reading world rock.

I also tend to carry over the tradition from mainstream fantasy of the little guy who seemed unfit and powerless becoming a hero in his own right. Many traditional pulp characters were larger than life from the get-go, and so to me, were basically untouchable and hard to identify with. The best stories revolved around a high action plot that was exciting enough to make you forget that you weren't terribly involved with the heroic lead. I tend to like a lot more complex characterization, and I don't see any reason why both can't be blended, because that's what I set out to do every day. You just have to do it fast as possible and in small bites with info passed on while the bullets are flying or the swords are clanging. With lots of practice it comes naturally, because you develop a special sense for it. You don't sit there analyzing the story—you write it and as it goes along, it tells you what it needs.

Erwin K. Roberts: These days readers, and a some writers, don't want the "perfect" heroes of times past. Maybe blame Lucas, Spielberg, & Harrison Ford. Indiana Jones does get the job done, but is far from always right. That's how he runs up all that "milage."

I'd have trouble writing Doc Savage like Lester Dent did. Writing Jim Anthony is much easier. Even though patterned after Doc, Jim always had emotions, flashes of anger, and a love life. So I can insert a bit of uncertainty into the Big Boy Scout. In an upcoming story I have Jim leaping from table to table in a banquet room to prevent a murder. As he throws himself into the last spectacular move he thinks, "If I'm wrong about this, I'll never live it down." My version of Jim Anthony has the mind, the skills, and the muscles. But he also understands the possibility of failure.

How do you tweak (or how much do you tweak) the stereotypes to make the characters unique from others based on the same archetype?

Don Thomas: And as you go up those characters that are more than just window dressing, the ones that the protagonist interact with, there should be more depth there.  More than the window dressing characters, but not so much as the primary protagonist or even the primary antagonist.  This would be the point where although in appearance said character follows a particular stereotype, in their case because their importance to the story they should fleshed out more.  No necessarily a walking taking opposition to the initial surface stereotype that they were shown be, just more like real people and less like stereotypes. And as far the main protagonist?  They've got to be larger that life.  They've got to have all the qualities of regular human being including variety, and most importantly depth of character.  And a stereotype is an assumption and the exact opposite of depth of character in my opinion.

Ian Watson: I'll take two examples from stereotype characters I've written.

Gideon Cain (from Gideon Cain: Demon Hunter at Cornerstone) started out as a Solomon Kane pastiche; we wanted to write new Kane stories but we weren't sure about whether he was public domain. Then comics creator Kurt Busiek suggested it would be better to make an homage character rather than a renamed rip-off. So we took what we thought was the core essence that made Kane cool - his puritan sensibilities in a world where dark magics lurked on the edges of a historical period -- and ditched the rest.

Cain takes place a century before Kane, proceeding from the tragedy and trauma of the Salem witch trials. That single change shifted a lot of the emphasis. We worked out that Cain had participated in the persecutions, in the faith he was serving God. Too late he discovered that the persecutors themselves were being manipulated by the Apocryphal demon Azazel. Vengeful and haunted, Cain sets out to track the demon across the world, thwarting supernatural evil seeded by his enemy.

That one change spawned a distinctive flavor. Unlike the stand-alone Kane episodes, Cain's quest takes on an epic continuity. Azazel has a developing backstory (that we never got to fully express in volume 1). Cain has a proper story arc. We worked out a full itinerary for his five years of travel. We fleshed in the family he'd left behind and why he'd left them. We worked out what weapons he would use and how they were effective. And so on. So a stereotype reverts to an archetype and offers something fresh.

When I came to write three Robin Hood novels I had a different problem. Hood's legend has been told and retold with many different emphases and variation. The question here was which Robin Hood was I featuring? The guerrilla freedom fighter? The swashbuckling bandit? The tormented ex-crusader? The supernatural forest champion? The "ultra-realistic" mediaeval predator?

I solved that problem by deciding that I wanted to explain why Robin Hood became what he's traditionally portrayed to be. Most tellings of the tale offer some justification for him hiding in Sherwood Forest, robbing the rich and giving to the poor, but that's dealt with in some backstory origin or early chapter: a tragedy in the family, a return from crusade, etc. I wanted to watch as a young man assembled himself to be the people's champion. I wanted to see him discover himself and assemble the legend around him. I wanted to show him learning, and growing, and the cast about him accreting and joining in.

And I wanted it to be fun. Robin Hood is pretty much the archetypal outlaw hero, and he's as much trickster and fighter. I wanted a laughing bandit in Sherwood Forest.

So, wanting a young Robin Hood changing and growing to be a hero (and laughing) I needed a motivation. The reason most young men ever do anything is because of a girl. So my Robin Hood story was going to be a romance, and therefore needed a sparkling heroine who could hold her own in scenes with the swashbuckling scofflaw. And romance needs a problem to overcome; in Robin Hood's case that has to be a scheming Sheriff and a wicked Prince.

In that way I selected which elements from the general "everybody knows" Robin Hood archetype I wanted to emphasize. I went back to the early written ballads and stories of Hood (16th and 17th century) to draw some verisimilitude and justify some of my choices -- for example making Robin a commoner rather than an earl. Whereas with Cain the question was "How is this different from the source?", with Robin it was "Which bits of the source do I want to work with most?"

Andrea Judy: Stereotypes in fiction, especially pulp, are tricky. Stay too close to them and your characters risks becoming stale, cliche and boring, but if you stray from them too wildly you can alienate your audience and leave them feeling confused and betrayed. I think it's okay to look towards these archetypes for a basis for the character but there needs to be something distinctive for each of your characters. Maybe the tough-talking, sharp-shooting cowboy is terrified of getting caught in a stampede because his father died that way, so when a stampede tears through town all he can do is cower in fear. That sets up the story for his redemption, it gives him something to overcome.

I think the real power of a character come from their weaknesses and how they overcome or compensate for them. A flaw takes a character from being a stereotype (unless it's a stereotypical weakness aka the helpless damsel in distress in which case maybe it's her strength) and turns that character into a fully-developed person ready to jump off the page and linger in the reader's imagination.

Lee Houston Jr.: It's not a question of "stereotypes" more than it is how do you make your characters stand out from the rest of the crowd? It is the personality traits you give them that does this and helps the writer develop the character(s) into someone the reader can at least relate to, if not like, and thus avoid the standard cliches.

Nancy Hansen: The trick with stereotypical characters is not to play too deeply into that timeworn trope. Each antagonist or protagonist is unique and needs something to make her or him stand out amongst all the other hero(ines) or villains being written. You want to give them the recognizable flavor, but not overpower the stew with what makes this gal or guy fit the mold because that gets dull quickly. In the end, it's best to have a recurring character remembered for those little quirks that made him or her stand out, and not just blend them into the background.

It's been said we're all telling the same old stories in a new way. I generally break a plot down into what makes it tick. Is it man against nature? Man against man? Man against himself? (rare in pulp). Once I know what is going to get accomplished, I can build a plot that is both based on the story type, and yet has plenty of good pulpy action. You want that story to fit within the common mold—for instance a heroic quest of some sort—but not completely conform to what else has been done. That makes the difference between what is a new and original tale, and something that comes off as more of a pastiche or fan piece. Add in some flavor that is unique to your own style, and you can't go wrong.

Or you can just do the unexpected. A lot of my heroic characters are women, and they were dominant in my stories long before I set up to make them fit into a more pulpy plot line. While I do write plenty of male heroics too, I concentrate on female leads because it's an area of pulp that has been under-served in the past. I keep in mind that all sorts of folks will be buying these tales, so that while I might be writing about a woman, she still has to capture the minds and hearts of a diverse group of readers.

Contributors (see links under Heavy Hitters column on the right)

Don Thomas writes in many different formats and genres that include; prose story writing (short stories, novellas, and novels.), movie and television scripting (screenplay writing, television writing, script editing.), comic book writing, and of course blogging.

Ian Watson is the author of numerous novels of SF, fantasy, and horror, and nine9 story collections. His stories have been finalists for the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and widely anthologized.

Andrea Judy is far too cute, too sweet and too girly to possibly write anything as dark and twisted as she does, or so she is told. She is new to pulp, but is looking to make a splash this year in several anthologies that are in the works from publishers ranging from New Babel Books to Pro Se Productions’ Pulp Obscura imprint.

Lee Houston Jr. is a freelance writer and editor. He is the author of the Hugh Monn and is writing for the forthcoming THE NEW ADVENTURES OF THE EAGLE VOLUME ONE from Pulp Obscura.

Nancy Hansen is a staff writer and an editor at Pro Se Productions and the author of FORTUNE’S PAWN from Pro Se Productions. 

Erwin K. Roberts is the author of PLUTONIUM NIGHTMARE and a contributor to JIM ANTHONY - SUPER DETECTIVE.