Friday, February 15, 2008

Strength of Character

Winter Sunset,
Hugh Bolton Jones,
oil on canvas, 1881.

We utilize three types of characters in our novels: the main characters, the minor, and the often nameless incidentals.

Always the advice is to avoid stereotypes, to make the chosen characters of what every type and frequency, "unique" -- though this dictum is somewhat relaxed in relationship to secondary and itinerant appearances.

I'm beginning to dislike the word unique. I think its one-of-a-kind connotation misleads.

I think the challenge is to create characters -- regardless of importance to the narrative or how brief their appearance -- who are individuals.

... an old red half-ton truck with a yellow dog leaning out of the box geared down and rolled slowly toward us.
A brown middle-aged face under a baseball cap stared deliberately.
A slight girl, a large man on a quiet road.
I smiled and waved at the driver to let him know that no assault or abduction was in progress.
I got a nod and a salute in return. The driver shifted gears and sped up again.
The yellow pup barked once and went back to savoring the wind.

Is a red-necked farmer in a half-ton a stereotype? Probably.
Unique? No.
But I intend for this one to come across at that moment as an individual.
What do you think?

The Anti-Wife is posting exercises from her writing course, which reminds me very much of a creative writing course I took in third year, with its emphasis on solid basics and the purpose of foundation elements like setting, description and character.

Even if one is not a beginner, it can be valuable to revisit and remind oneself of fundamentals.
Though advice may be standard and stereotypical, one may well find benefit in an instructor's individual methods of expressing that advice.


BernardL said...

I'm with you on this. Stereotypes exist because while people may have individualistic traits, they tend to form patterns in their lives similar to people they've grown up around. Your truck driver, while fitting a recognizable pattern the reader may identify with retains a hint of mystery.

Bernita said...

IMO, Bernard, it's the writer's job to single out those individualistic traits.

StarvingWriteNow said...

I agree--"Unique" is way overused. I like your idea of making a character an individual so much better. Takes the pressure of a bit. Thanks!

December/Stacia said...

Yep, individualism is key. It's important to make them more than a stereotype.

Bernita said...

Especially useful with minor characters, WriteNow, who don't deserve a lot of description. A single quality/characteristic is how we often remember people in real life.

I think they can be a stereotype, December, as long as we individualize them in some manner. What we don't want is a cliche.

Robyn said...

I just last night put down a book and refuse to pick it back up- unusual for me- because the hero is a rogue cop who hates authority. I was told in two pages, by two minor characters, that this guy was a tough maverick who was difficult to work with but the one you'd want by your side in a fight.

How many times have I seen this character? Letting me discover these things in a more interesting way might have worked, but this? Seemed right out of central casting.

Bernita said...

Doesn't sound as if he was individualized at all, Robyn.

Gabriele C. said...

The 'rule' about unique characters seems to be down the same alley as, no adverbs, no telling, no omniscient POV and whatever else I've come across.

I'm a pirate, I only have guidelines. :)

Carla said...

Your farmer sounds like an individual we can all recognise - which fits a secondary character very well. Is he a secondary character, by the way?

raine said...

I intend for this one to come across at that moment as an individual.What do you think?

I think you accomplished your mission.
Well done, without excess verbiage (love the dog--I can see his ears flapping in the wind).

I also think you need to write faster so I can read this, lol.

Bernita said...

Some advice becomes a "rule" only when it is interpreted too narrowly, Gabriele.

Merely an incidental character, Carla.
Who, by his concern (I hope)also suggests Lillie's quick awareness of perceptions outside herself. He also serves( I hope) to widen/colour the setting in which the larger scene is played.
He's to provide bit of foreshadowing.reader alert too. Lillie finds herself in real danger a couple of scenes later.

Thank you, Raine.I like that dog!
I'm writing as fast as I can!

Dave F. said...

I think you are right. Unique is good for a time (like Captain Jack Sparrow is unique in the annals of pirate ship captains), but the hero of that story - Will Turner is merely mortal (forget the last movie, please!). Liz Swann, his love interest, is a strong woman but still not unique. I don't want to say that only one character should be unique in any story. What is true is that you can have too much uniqueness.

Two of the longest running TV shows (to use an easy example) are ER and LAW & ORDER (the original). They populate the shows with ordinary characters. The police station is filled with ordinary details of beat cops, miscreants, hangers on. The ER is filled with nurses, doctors, patients. Both shows create a rich background that supports the stories. None of those characters have to talk. They just move through the scene adding realism. All the minor characters support the plotlines.

Another thought: Neither MacBeth or his bloody and ruthless wife are anything but superstitious wannabes with grand ambitions. the tragedy of MacBeth is that he is an ordinary soldier, a hired killer for the king, who gets fame and fortune and lets it all go to his head. Even the Witches are ordinary witches for Shakespeare's time. MacBeth isn't Prometheus nobly stealing fire. He's everyman going bad. He is merely the host who kills his guest - the ultimate sin.

But I've gone on too much.

That's your half ton truck driver. The silent interactions of everyday life.

Bernita said...

"The silent interactions of everyday life."
What an excellent way of putting it, Dave!
I think novels need them, particularly ones like mine where most of the intensity is focused on one or two characters - so that they don't appear to be standing on an empty stage.

Billy said...

Is the red neck a stereotype? Because of where I live, I'm gonna have to disqualify myself on that one -:)

SzélsőFa said...

I followed the link to Antiwife's account of her writing classes, and found them useful.
Thanks, Bernita.

Scott from Oregon said...

These old guys tend to do weird things in these situations. You have him salute, which is a bit generic, before he drives on. I've seen exaggerated winks with hat tips. Feigned disbelief. Finger guns fired in the air...

Sometimes there is a direct salute to the man, a knowing wink, where he is suggesting "You lucky dog, you!" to the man in rudeness to the woman...

There is the tapping of the heart gesture, where they signify "you scared me for a second"...

There is the leer of the perv...

I suppose it all depends on how much you want to break "the truck driving with yellow dog" stereotype up...

Suzanne Perazzini said...

A speaker at a writing conference I once attended said that every character in your story thinks they are the main character - treat them as such if only for a brief moment. I find that advice helps create a more rounded secondary or incidental character.


Bernita said...

So they say, Billy.

Obviously, AW's found an excellent course and instructor, Szelsofa.

Scott, I thought, rather than just breezing past minding his own business, that concern for a girl's welfare made him an individual, perhaps I was wrong.

Yes, Suzanne.Their eyes, their POV.
I think it helps for the writer to view them as individuals and not stock characters for convenience.

Chumplet said...

Bertie Gauthier, a secondary character in Bad Ice, is a hook nosed, thick browed, wiry North Shore French Canadian hockey player, and I wouldn't have him any other way.

Bernita said...

From the Nort Shore?
Sandra, he might be a type, but I would never call him a stereotype.

ChristineEldin said...

I also agree. And I'm loving AW's exercises--I've never taken a writing course, so I'm learning a lot.

Bookfraud said...

excellent, interesting post (per usual). it's a fine line between stereotype and caricature, though neither is a good thing. the old criticism of dickens is an interesting counterpoint: he creted two-dimensional characters like uriah heep or micawber or even mr. dick (and that's just in "david copperfield" alone), but he gets away with it, if only because he has enough sense to inject them with humanity despite their hewing to a stereotype of their class.

just my two undereducated cents.

Charles Gramlich said...

Your last paragraph is so true. I find it amazing how I forget basic things if I don't consistently review them.

As for the character, I think he did have individuality. Maybe, like with plots, there are no new characters, no unique characters. But they can still be brought to life with the right touch.

Rick said...

Suzanne - wonderful comment. To the incidental characters it is the story that is incidental. Girl by the side of the road ... nothing worrisome ... forgotten.

Sometimes, though, I find myself wondering what the people around the edges of my story think of it all. Do they wonder what all the ruckus is about? Or are they just glad it mostly passes them by?

Bernita said...

And nothing teaches like an example, Chris.

Thank you, Book. Your two cents are worth as much as anyone else's, and I'm glad to see them.

Charles, I'm glad I'm not the only one who benefits from refresher.

"To the incidental characters it is the story that is incidental."
Another neat way of putting it, Rick. Thank you.
If we remember that it may help make their reactions more realistic.
Many, I suspect, are glad to be spectators.

Travis Erwin said...

I think there are times when people are overly scared of stereotypes. After all, many of the stereotypes hold a lot of truth otherwise they wouldn't have become stereotypes.

The trick is to go beyond show that the person is mroe than a stereo type. Show the things that make them an individual, while still maintaining a semblance of reality.

The story and characters have to feel real to the reader otherwise you've lost them and I truly believe stereotypes can help us as writers achive that. but you cna't rely on them to do the work for you.

Rick said...

Travis - yes; "no stereotypes" is another piece of advice much beaten to death. The distinction between a stereotype and an archetype is a fine one. Perhaps a stereotype is just an archetype that just misses the cut.

Often for secondary or incidental characters an archetype is just what we want - not any old redneck driving a truck, and certainly not a unique one, but for those few lines the Platonic essence of rednecks driving pickups.

Sam said...

It's a mystery why some characters become immediately likeable and others take some time to 'get to know', while still others never really hook my attention.
Just like real people.

Bernita said...

Yes, Travis, and in "real" life we often stereotype.

"the Platonic essence" of rednecks driving pickups - wonderful way of putting it, Rick!

Just like real people, Sam.
We can't suit everyone's taste.

writtenwyrdd said...

I've been trying to post but my connection and my computer have both had problems. So, let's try again.

I think you're right about being too unique, just make the characters as memorable as you need them to be. Not scene-stealing, but alive seeming by a word, a gesture, an observation by your characters.

Stereotypes can be useful if you have them used to trick a character or a reader. The 'a ha fooled you' moment. But I'd hazard a guess it fails far more often than it works.

Bernita said...

"but alive seeming by a word, a gesture, an observation by your characters."
I think that works, Written.