Yesterday’s post led to Kilks suggesting that I base a NaNo tip on it, which I am now doing.
One of the biggest flaws in beginner writing is a reliance on stereotypes and cliches which produces characters who never come to life because they lack verisimilitude. The female protag faints and is afraid of spiders. The male one is brave and strong. Or vice versa. And that’s all there is to them. They’re thinner than paper.
What do I mean by a stereotype? Let’s look at one that frequently shows up in US teen movies and books: the dumb jock.
Now am I saying that you can’t write about a dumb jock? No, absolutely not. I’m saying that if you’re writing a character who has been written a million times before and been in a million movies you have to work hard to make them transcend being merely “the dumb jock.” You have to turn them into a fully realised character.
My favourite dumb jock is D.J. Schwenk, the protag of Catherine Gilbert Murdock‘s Dairy Queen trilogy. D.J. breaks the stereotype in several ways. For starters she’s a girl and she’s playing American football on a boy’s team. But there’s more to it than that. She’s dumb in that she’s not very good at school work. She doesn’t get why people read books for pleasure. And she’s not particularly smart about her own feelings. Or rather she’s slow at figuring them out. She’s slow at things that aren’t physical. But she gets there eventually. All too often we equate fast thinking with smart thinking and D.J. helps get you to rethink that. Maybe she’s considered “dumb” because our definition of smart isn’t very flexible?
When a character is making you rethink what it means to be “dumb” or “smart” you know you’re in the hands of a wonderful writer.
How does Murdock do it?
It’s all in the details. The tell-tale observations that are so particular to her character. The syntax and rhythm of D.J.’s speech (the books are in first person) sounds like no one but D.J. Schwenk. Here’s the opening of the third book in the trilogy, Front and Center:
Here are ten words I never thought I’d be saying . . . Well, okay, sure. I say these words all the time. It’s not like school and good and to are the kind of words you can avoid even if you wanted to. It’s just that I’ve never said them in this particular order. Not that I can remember, anyway. But what do you know, there they were inside my head, like a little thing you’d say to get yourself psyched: It sure feels good to be going back to school.
It feels like D.J. is talking directly to us. We get to see her thought patterns, which are halting, even clumsy, she’s not comfortable with words, which is something we usually associate with being smart.
It’s very intimate to be allowed such close access to someone else’s thoughts. It’s a great way to get your audience on side with your character. We get to know them better than anyone else in the book does. And when we know a character that well it’s impossible for them to remain a stereotype.
So there you have it: if you get inside your character’s head, really get to understand them, then they cease to be a cliche. It doesn’t matter if they started as the perky cheerleader, or the loner goth kid who reads too much, or the bully with problems at home they will become themselves: real and believable.
Good luck with it!