Monday, June 6, 2016

Hole 4: Keeping Your Characters on Par and Writing Against Type


Creating realistic and compelling characters requires layering. In this series on Keeping a Character on Course Through a story, we've talked about stake, distinction, and world view, so let's turn now to talking about writing against type.

We've all heard the phrase, "There are two types of people in this world...[fill in the blank here] and a writer's goal is to create people who don't fit into this binary or any stereotype that limits people's understanding of others.

Not every construction worker will sit on a beam, eating lunch, and whistling at "lookers" as they walk by. While construction is a draw to folks who like hands-on experience with visible results, the type of person who wants to do that work varies wildly based on class, gender, faith, ethnicity, and a thousand other variables. How is your construction worker different than others?

Is she a woman who creates industrial inspired sculptures from work site scraps? A man who performs in an improv group on the weekends? A Mohawk grandson of one of the men who helped build the Empire State Building.  Is he struggling with a fear of heights and the knowledge that the world says Mohawks don't have such fears?

Getting a Little Theoretical:

There's a concept called "radical multiculturalism" which suggests that the only way to end discrimination is through the intentional deconstruction of the concept of the 'other' by viewing all cultures through an emic perspective."  Seeing cultures that are not our own as they see themselves requires understanding them and that means reading their stories and their history and getting to know as many people from as many backgrounds as possible.

Going Cross-Cultural:

As an author, it also means doing extensive research before creating characters from cultures that are not our own. Keep in mind, we do that every time we write. I've written about men, but I'm a woman. I've written about children and I haven't been a child in far too long. Writing cross-culturally doesn't just mean crossing ethnic lines.  I encourage people to cross all kinds of cultural boundaries with respect, honarable intent, and an open mind.

Here's a great blog by Molly Henning on resources for writing cross-culturally
10 Great Resources on Writing Cross-Culturally

Writing Against Type:

When it comes to writing against type:

1.Know the type. If you're creating a particular type of character, be conscious of how that type of person is often portrayed in literature, film, and humor and break the mold for that type.

2. Be aware of your own preconceived notions about a particular type of person. If you don't explore your own ideas about people, you'll act upon misconceptions without fully realizing it.

3. Learn about real people in that role. As a geek with zero athletic ability, I didn't have a high opinion of athletes, so I learned about athletes like Bobbi Gibb and Katherine Switzer, the two women who broke the mold and showed the world that women could run in the Boston Marthon. Gibb ran in 1966 by joining the race after the starting line because they wouldn't allow women to register. Katherine registered without declaring her gender in 1967.  Here's more about her run in her own words:

1967 Boston Marathon, the Real Story

These athletes like so many that I have known have demonstrated the heart, discipline, and individuality that go into being an athlete.

4. Be Genuine. In going against type, don't do it just to do it. Allow the unique qualities of the person to rise organically out of realistic life experiences.

5.  Be Complex.  Allow characters, even if they are  a secondary or a background player in the story, to be layered and complex. What makes them unique? How can you bring that out in economic ways. Patricia McLachlan, the author of the critically acclaimed [book:Sarah, Plain and Tall|106264] is a master at economic character development by giving them defining actions and characteristics.

How do you go against type in your own writing?

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