Characters: Stereotype or Stellar?

I think we need a new definition of the stereotyped character. The old one: round vs. flat just isn’t working anymore. It’s not about shape, it’s about depth. I don’t care what their favorite book is, or even what they’re scared of (snakes vs. rats, for example.) We give characters quirky properties and call it good enough when it’s not.

I keep learning about characterization. Every time I think I’ve got it down, I realize I’m slipping into stereotypes. But below, please find my new (improved!) insight. It is not only an effective way to draw a memorable character, it is much easier than painting a labored picture of them.

Deep Character

What distinguishes a walk-on character from an important one, a deep character from a vingette or stereotyped one is inner conflict. If the character is sure about what they want, who they are, and what the right thing to do is, then there you have your stereotyped carbon-based life form. They play out their roles in expected ways, thus draining interest from scenes they are in.

  • loyal servant
  • insufferable good-looking white guy
  • ambitious politico
  • principled crusader
  • stuffy father
  • kind teacher

On the other hand, all deep characters have a push-pull about what they are doing or who they align with. They have an:

Inner Conflict

This inner uncertainty doesn’t need to involve a big back story or prevent characters from acting, or require lots of inner harangues and tea-sipping doubts. It simply means they doubt. They have competing values, and in case of major characters, warring values.

They may come on stage being of two minds, or their doubts may arise from contact with another character or because of events. For example, the idealist who wants to teach children in the third world becomes disillusioned; she is not able to cope with cultural relativism. She admits defeat or works valiantly despite doubts. But she has doubts.

Doubt, or inner conflict, is what makes people believable, sympathetic, and, if you must, round. Give inner conflict to 5 or 6 characters, not just your major ones. Even minor characters can jump to life if we see that they are not just the author’s puppets, fulfilling an assigned role.

Point of View and Story Arc

Your deep characters may resolve their inner conflict or not. But if their journey takes them to a different place than where they began, why not give them a point of view scene or three? It gives scope to a smaller story. It allows you to show your protagonist (and antagonist) through another person’s eyes, thus working to deepen your major characters as well.

And the corollary: if you have given point of view scenes to a character, then be sure the character does change. The inner conflict becomes deeper, reconciles, or breaks a heart; but it does undergo a deepening movement. In other words, the character has a story arc.

Bottom line: The reader’s interest is held through depth and surprise. The school teacher we thought was rather boring becomes a recognizably flawed individual. We wonder what she will do. We turn the pages to find out.

2 Responses

  1. Erika says:

    I think surprise is one of the best ways to break out of stereotypes. I really love being pulled out of predictability with some kind of shock – something that makes me look again at a character I’ve been reading about for 100 pages in an entirely new way. Surprise is important. 🙂

  2. Kay says:

    I really think it’s the key. The writer’s job then becomes a mining excursion to find that person’s individuality. It’s a process of honoring our characters, and respecting the reader. No person is a “role.”

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