From stereotype to complex character with speed and ease

Copyright © 2014 Jerry Dunne

Stereotypes are not real people, as real people are multi-dimensional. All the same, with only a few simple but poignant attributes, a stereotype offers an immediate, energetic and powerful impression. By using the stereotype as a template, it is easy to build on these strong features. With the addition of just a few relevant and interesting attributes to the template, the stereotype shifts into a more complex and multi-dimensional shape, but without losing those original traits which made it immediate, energetic and powerful.

The purpose of using the stereotype as a template for creating more complex character has two main advantages. The most important is of use in the short story. With the short story’s limited word length – as with other aspects of the narrative –character must be built up deftly, and the stereotype template is very handy as an aid for achieving this. The stereotype shows us just how few attributes are needed to create poignant character, and so, when we build our complexity on top of our template we see that it is quality and not quantity of attribute that is necessary. Also, if we use the stereotype as a template, then we are fully aware of this fact, and, so, we will certainly not end up with further clichéd character.

Let’s have an example of how to create complex character quickly and easily from our stereotype template. Here we will use the young male writer/artist/sculptor/actor who is pretty much housekeeping and work shy, often broody, difficult, self-indulgent and on and off in his relationship with his girlfriend. Not only that, but if he’s a novelist, for example, he’s never even finished a full novel, but certainly has a list of excuses as to why not that could in themselves fill a book. Many young middle-class women will have dated this type at one time or other and so will know him well. Yes, of course, each one of these young men is an individual in his own right but in other ways he readily fits this stereotype. The point is that he’s easily identifiable from a handful of poignant attributes.

These days his girlfriend views him as the stereotype. Maybe once he (novelist) seemed interesting, but since she’s struggled to remember what she ever saw in him. However, one day, not having read any of his creative writing for a long while, she picks up some of it by chance and sees he has attempted to write some ‘sayings’. She’s unexpectedly taken by several of them and one in particular sticks out for her.

Of course you are not a stereotype. It’s just that an awful lot of people see you as one.

His saying jolts her into realising that as the months have passed and she has become more disappointed and critical of him, that she has actually turned him from the individual she once liked and admired into an object of her scorn. Another way of saying this is that the more she distanced herself from him emotionally, the more she reduced him to a stereotype in her own mind. The more distanced you are from someone, the less you know of someone, and so the more likely they are to appear as a stereotype to you. Now she asks herself some questions: Is the saying about her? Nowadays, how does he see her? Is the saying suggesting that her cynicism has widened the distance between them? Has her critical attitude toward him turned her into a stereotype in his eyes? Has she become the sniping, critical girlfriend type?

You see what’s happened here. We get nineteen words from the boyfriend’s pen and already the stereotype has been fractured. These nineteen words of creative writing give us a witty and interesting take on the nature of stereotypes. In other words, the boyfriend has offered us an interesting perspective about something. It is almost always the case that an interesting perspective makes for an interesting person in some ways; and, if a perspective is not banal then the person holding it can hardly be a stereotype. The saying also offers us a take on the writer’s emotional depth; namely, that he can interpret aspects of life through the use of wit. The boyfriend’s perspective, through the saying, has pulled his girlfriend up short and got her seeing him in a new light (moving away from the stereotype) and thinking deeply about their relationship. His nineteen words have awakened her curiosity and now given him an air of mystery. It is like she is discovering him anew.

The girlfriend starts thinking back, recalling what attracted her to him in the first place. She had first seen him surrounded by a circle of people, all laughing at his banter. She’d got talking to him alone and told him that she’d recently broken up with her actor boyfriend because he was always putting on airs and graces and it had really annoyed her in the end. She recalls the specific thing he then said to her which had made her laugh out loud, and which had been the start of her attraction to him.

He had said, “An actor only puts on airs and graces to hide the fact that he is almost always out of work.”

Here is individual background and possibly backstory (if it is relevant to the story’s plot) and once we have individual background or backstory, the stereotype is completely shattered, as these elements also help deepen and enrich character. And look how little we have done to destroy the stereotype. Of course, we can go on deepening his character with attributes related to appearance, mannerisms and so on, and will certainly do so with the use of further dialogue, action and possibly inner monologue, but in a short story (if not in a novel, too) we look for the most poignant details to help bring our character speedily into a multi-dimensional life.

If we were developing our characters for a short story, we might start with her present thoughts on the boyfriend, where she has turned him into a stereotype, before we are presented with the first saying and then the backstory. If we do it like this, if we juxtapose the stereotype against the original wit of the non-stereotype and yet we are shown they are both the same person, this then creates a sense of mystery for us. What has happened in between her first laughing at his wit and her present point of view of him? The twist could involve the fact that in order to turn him into a stereotype she has become a stereotype in his eyes, as she suspected, and, so, either she or both of them together have created a stereotypical relationship with each other. The theme might consider how people distance themselves from each other by the use of the stereotype and its consequences for a relationship.

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About jerrydunne

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