Our culture and habits are deeply engrained. When we writers create characters, we usually know the basics of their personalities before we begin to write. We have a feel for the type of person that would fit the plot. In fleshing out those who people our stories, we give them jobs, family, myriad habits, and quirks. We assign stations in life, perhaps borrowed from people we know, or from history itself. We are careful to make them interesting and, hopefully, memorable. Therein lays one of the pitfalls that can dull the excitement of a plot instead of helping it to sing. I found a perfect example of this in my own writing.
Villains of old were ugly and ornery. They were evil and vile and we could not expect anything from them except dastardly deeds. These characters, that we loved to hate, became predictable and boring. Writers received praise when they broke the stereotype and began casting villains as ordinary people who were later exposed as evil. This not only made the stories more surprising, but in films as well, gave actors roles that challenged their abilities. These turncoat characters became unpredictable and interesting in spite of their disguised audacity. They put a whole new spin on the climax or denouement of a story.
In no way does stereotyping apply only to villains. Any of your characters can fall prey if you are not careful how to portray them. While writers now distance themselves from such stereotypes as the villain, so must we distance ourselves from typecasting ordinary people.
In my recently released thriller, Down to the Needle, I first cast the character, Nettie, as a black woman running a soup kitchen after her Fire Chief husband dies. Another character, Lindsay, is a young white girl working in the heroine’s (Abi) store. Realizing I had cast a black woman in a menial job, I switched the characters.
Nettie becomes a widowed white woman who ignores the social stature achieved by her deceased Fire Chief husband and answers the call to community service. She runs the soup kitchen and is known for her charitable acts.
Lindsay became a wild pop-rocker African-American girl with too much business savvy to stay in her dead-end job at a music store in a mall. Needing to improve her lot, she applies for a sales position at Abi’s store. Lindsay comes to her interview still in her music shop persona; wild Afro, nails and lipstick painted black, and wearing a skimpy hip hugger skirt. She realizes her mistake when she sees Abi’s store is no ordinary boutique but an upscale baby and children’s clothing shop. Young, but learning quickly, the next day, Lindsay returns to the store to apologize for her faux pas. She wears a chic pink business suit, nails, lipstick, and clothing accessories accentuate the suit. Her hair is totally braided down. The image fits the broad range of business acumen reflected on Lindsay’s resume. Realizing Lindsay is serious about work and can make instant decisions, Abi takes a chance and hires her on the spot. After she proves her worth, as anyone in a new job must, Abi offers Lindsay a full partnership in a second store.
While the lives of Nettie and Lindsay in their new character sketches seem ordinary, it would have been flat, even pathetic to cast a black woman running a soup kitchen. And Lindsay would be just another white girl climbing the employment ladder through the work-a-day world.
I’m pleased with the changes for my characters because of the way their new personas offered more to further blend into the story overall. These characters brought a new level of excitement to the story. Their lives have more meaning and will not be skimmed over by the reader in a hurry to get out of a dull chapter. In fact, once I changed these characters, the story wove together tighter than I had imagined. You can only know that if you work on your character personalities and break the mold of stereotyping.
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