On Characters & Stereotypes

“I want to write characters with depth, characters that are realistic and relatable, and I want, most of all, to escape stereotypes. I feel so bored by your typical bland heroines who, even if they are the leads, are always outshone by the flamboyancy of their male counterparts. I want tough girls and boys being eaten from the inside by the standards they feel they have to abide to. How do I write that and make it feel realistic and relatable?”

This is one of those questions that I feel like every writer is constantly asking himself. And really, there’s no great answer. The writer in me wants to know all those things, but really every time I’ve come back around to thinking about it, I come to the conclusion that a well-developed character is not a stereotype. A well-developed character might have things in common with an existing stereotype and actually, that’s fine.

Characters who have a few stereotypical qualities are not necessarily something to be cringing over. Normal people conform to stereotypes all the time, but when there’s more to them than that, that’s when they suddenly begin seem three-dimensional and real. Avoiding any stereotypical association will be endlessly difficult and will show in your writing. When you think of your character as a real person and you’re not constantly worrying “types,” your character ends up feeling more believable as a result.

So, for instance, let’s look at the “Basic Bitch” stereotype. Stereotypes can be really nasty and harmful, but this is one that makes me laugh – partially because I’m someone who in more than a few ways has fit into this stereotype before. Additionally, this might be a stereotype that’s kind of dead, so I’m probably offending no one. This is also the stereotype I would associate more than a few contemporary heroines with if I had to pick one – though for the most part I don’t really associate heroines of books I read with stereotypes. But anyway, the basic bitch – I think Ugg boots, pumpkin spice lattes, the late 2000’s, Gray’s Anatomy, leggings as pants, The Notebook, quotes from Mean Girls, cheap wine, Pinterest outfit boards, vodka cranberry, and an unflagging devotion to Beyoncé.

I’m pretty sure no one lives like this anymore or if they do, it’s kinda retro and cool again? I don’t know. But anyway, when I read characters that have more than a few of these qualities, half of me is like, this is super relatable. The other half of me is searching for what else I can learn about this person to get a real sense of who they are beyond those things. Sure, some of these things are super relatable, but it would be really weird to meet a person and have this be only who they are. I want to know then, what’s her weird obsession? Does she have a whole collection of stolen left shoes in the back of her closet? The more normal and regular and bland they seem on the surface, the more I feel like I’ve got to search for their weird secret dark side that they’ve been hiding behind their boring, normal front. So the point is, no one is “normal.” No one can fit a stereotype perfectly, because they have got to have their own set of strange idiosyncrasies that make them human.

Just like in real life, when your characters are not full of their own little quirks and idiosyncrasies and don’t have depth beyond a stereotype, they won’t read as a believable person. So now for an example from a real book. Recently, I read Final Girls by Riley Sager. I thought it was a really fun read, especially in October, right before Halloween when I was really needing my horror-fix. Final Girls is not a horror novel, it’s a thriller, but the premise is pretty entrenched in horror-genre film. Quincy was the lone survivor of a massacre, where all of her college friends were brutally murdered right in front of her – just like the heroines of Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream. The story is set years after the traumatic night and Quincy has lost all memory of that horrible night, until another real-life final girl enters into her life and pushes her to remember.

Like I said, it was a really fun book to read. Quincy felt relatable enough and also quirky enough to be believable. Other readers might be more critical, but I have read a lot of books, and if I have bones to pick, I’m not picking them here. I’m bringing up Quincy as an example because at least in my experience of reading her, she’s a character trying so hard to be normal. She runs a baking blog. She worries about eating too many sweets from baking for said baking blog and is watching her figure. She has a boyfriend who is also a super good guy who she really loves and they do stupidly cute things like quote lines from old movies at each other. She decorated her apartment with the kind of shabby-chic, but actually super expensive flee market finds that supposedly all Millennials are obsessed with. She is striving for a more contemporary version of that Basic Bitch stereotype so hard – but also, I think that’s the point. Her life because of that massacre has been so not normal that she wants to be normal. Early on she seems so ridiculously normal, but then she starts doing really weird things like stealing literally any shiny object she sees and keeping them all in a locked drawer that her boyfriend can’t open. She gets wilder and weirder from there. She’s not a simple stereotype even as she works so hard from the start to look like one and I think that’s really exciting.

Quincy fits some stereotypes, but the thing is, she isn’t ruled by them. She is actually to some degree conscientious of the stereotype she wants to fit and to another degree, more subtly, the stereotype she’s trying so hard to avoid. She is a much more fleshed out character than that and as a result, she is easy to follow through a whole novel.

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