Characters are the foundation of every story. Maycomb County is just another fictional southern town without Scout and Jem to give it purpose. The little house on the prairie is quite literally four walls surrounded by grass if you don’t include the Ingalls family.
Often when we’re creating the characters in our stories, we unintentionally default to stereotypes, probably because we’re focused more on telling the story than taking the time to craft unique, diverse, not-at-all-typical characters to bring life to it.
Does that make us “bad” writers? Of course not. Every writer’s first draft is full of stock characters. We’re so attached to them we don’t even realize they’re there. But eventually, to move to the next level of storytelling, we have to learn to rewrite them.
Here are a few common stock characters (stereotypes in character form) and how to begin rewriting those characters to create a fresh, exciting story.
The starving artist
The stereotype: When we create the starving artist (let’s call him Fred) we do so partly because we’re trying to add an aura of realism into the story we’re telling. Fred, for our purposes, is a screenwriter with big dreams. It’s not that he’s not good at screenwriting. In fact, he might be amazing. But his lack of success (or maybe even luck) has forced him to get a “real” job, the funds from which he probably uses to fuel his ambitions.
It’s not “wrong” to portray realistic situations or people like Fred. Stereotypes are stereotypes because real situations and people have been portrayed over and over and over again. But there’s a way to keep it real without sticking to the stereotype.
The rewrite: Take Fred’s seemingly senseless dedication to screenwriting and refusal to “grow up and find another dream” and give that passion a root. Fred doesn’t want to make money, he doesn’t want to be famous, he doesn’t even really even like screenwriting all that much … or wouldn’t, if it weren’t for the root. The reason why he’s trying to keep that dream alive when he knows it’s unrealistic.
That root could be a person or an event or both. Formulating a motive behind the drive turns the starving artist into a bit of a selfless, well-meaning human being. There is a danger of falling prey to different kinds of cliches here (i.e., Fred promised his dying brother he would tell his story and make it a movie one day). But the important thing here is to give your stock character depth. Worry about the exact details when they’re necessary.
The manic pixie dream girl
The stereotype: Marcia skips in time to the heartbeat of her own world. Which would be considered a strong character trait (I am independent! I am true to myself!) if it weren’t for the character she influences in the process. Our story’s protagonist’s life is completely reconstructed due to that influence. The problem here, aside from Marcia’s character being grossly overdone, is that her personality alone becomes enough to trigger character development.
Which, again, isn’t wrong. We’re changed by people we meet all the time. What’s missing here is a series of accompanying story elements to justify both Marcia’s personality and the change in our protagonist (we’ll call him Arthur).
The rewrite: Marcia is a free spirit who can think and act for herself, and Arthur probably can and will learn a lot from the way she thinks and acts. But Marcia needs a deeper reason for thinking and acting the way she does. The manic pixie dream girl, usually, is shallow, as far as characters are concerned. She’s never given a motive for her quirks or her need to break Arthur out of his mold.
Give her one. Have him, through sequences of events, find it. Put a significant event in front of them and propel them through it as the story progresses, until they are emotionally exposed to one another in a way that justifies their growth and their bond.
We went on a small unintentional rant about MPDGs so we’re going to have to split our original post into multiple parts! Hope you liked it … because there’s more where this came from.
Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.