Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Writer Will Take Your Questions Now (#134) -- Stereotypes

How do you make the stereotypes work for the story and for you as a writer? 
How do you tweak (or how much do you tweak) the stereotypes to make 
the characters unique from others based on the same archetype?

Stereotypes are good for three things (that I've found) in fiction: foils, bit players, and starting points.

For foils who don't really need to be more than paper thin as characters, a stereotype is fine. After all, a foil's purpose is merely to bounce the real characters off him or her in order to show how interesting they are. The more fleshed out a foil character is, the more he or she would distract from the real characters. An example? Sure. Nick Carraway, from the Great Gatsby, remains your stereotypical Midwestern innocent (one might say doe-eyed) throughout the bulk of the novel, only growing beyond that after the murder.

For bit players who bob in and out of a story, it's not that important to know much more about them than they they are the "hooker with a heart of gold," "the street-crime sob story," the "pedestal princess," the "rich bitch," etc. In these cases, the stereotype is a sort of literary shorthand for getting them on the page without having to bore the reader with pages of unnecessary backstory.

As for starting points, every character begins life as a stereotype. All of them. It's only what the writer does with them beyond that moment of literary conception that makes them true characters rather than mere caricatures.

Let's look at Rick Ruby, created by Bobby Nash and me for the new book The Ruby Files from Airship 27. Rick started out as a paper-thin pastiche of the hard-boiled noir private eye. Even his name hearkens to the stereotype. Rick Ruby, a send-up of the classic Richard Diamond. But after that, when Bobby and I got together over dinner one night and really started to put the screws to Rick's personality and life, he outgrew that one-note stereotype and became the literary equivalent of "real." Is regularly seeing three women who want him for different reasons. Was orphaned. Left the police force to become a drunk after a personal tragedy. Most of his best friends are black, and not white like himself (and this in the 1930s). And so on. Rick stopped being a stereotype and became a character.