A writer has many tools to craft believable and round characters in fiction. Writers often spend considerable time reflecting on their characters, creating extensive backstories for them. Sometimes this information isn’t revealed to the reader but is there in the writer’s mind to draw from for inspiration. So while a reader might only learn a character’s age, or profession or physical attributes, a writer will probably know the character on a much deeper level, having lived with these characters in his head for a significant amount of time.
Sol Stein in his book Stein on Writing writes that there are at least five different ways to characterize: “through physical attributes, with clothing …, through psychological attributes and mannerisms, through actions and in dialogue” (Stein 56). Stein advises against using generalizations or language that has been overused to the point that it is no longer impactful (Stein 56). Stein’s advice is nothing new: most writers know that relying on stereotypical characters is perceived as a sign of laziness and unoriginal writing.
If pressed, most of us could name a handful of stereotypical characters: the sexy mistress, the sleazy attorney, the alcoholic cop, the hooker with a heart of gold, etc. These kind of characters often feel flat; by relying on the familiar, they come across as trite and predictable. Where’s the intrigue in reading about a character that is overly familiar already?
And yet stereotypes can be useful to the writer. If used carefully, they can provide scaffolding for the writer to build upon. Stereotypes can act as a conduit for the writer to jump straight into the telling of the story, thanks to the common knowledge afforded by stereotypes. Stereotypes and clichéd characters orient the reader. This is a particularly effective tool for short story writers where word count is everything.
How does a writer distinguish between using a stereotype for good reasons (as character scaffolding, for example) vs. using a stereotype for less good reasons (because it’s easier to create a clichéd character)? You can make the argument that a skilled writer can start with a familiar concept—a cliché—and still take the reader somewhere new and unexpected. In other words, a good writer doesn’t depend on the cliché but rather uses it judiciously to ground the reader, whereas a less skilled writer allows the cliché to be the end result, instead of the starting point.
Orson Scott Card in his article “Stereotyping Your Characters” argues that characters that go against a stereotype are interesting. He writes that “by surprising us, they pique our interest, make us want to explore” (2). In contrast, stereotypical characters aren’t very remarkable since “we think we know them, and … aren’t all that interested in knowing them better” (2). In other words, there is something innately uninteresting about a character who looks and says exactly what we expect. This feeling of deja-vu is unsatisfying to both the reader and the author himself.
Card begins his article with this sentence: “The moment we see a stranger, we immediately start classifying her according to the group we recognize she belongs to. We also, unconsciously, compare the stranger to ourselves.” In other words, humans are primed to classify and sort people into categories, and Card writes that often this type of classification happens at an unconscious level, “like breathing and blinking and swallowing” (1).
A common stereotype in both life and literature is the sexy young mistress. This is a scenario that has been written about and portrayed in movies many times. And yet it’s a stereotype that a reader accepts because typically men don’t leave their wives for older or smarter women. Because of this, a man leaving his wife for a younger woman might sound like a hackneyed beginning to a story. But there’s always room for the writer to start with a cliché and end up somewhere unexpected because of the why—why did this particular man leave his wife for this particular woman? Since there is a collective meaning already attached to a cliché, the reader doesn’t have to grapple with meaning to jump into a story that begins with a familiar premise.
In her short story “Intensive Care,” Lee Smith utilizes the stereotypical relationship of a man leaving his wife for a sexy waitress to jumpstart her story. Smith employs clichés to arrange the story, which allows her to begin the story without a lengthy preamble. At first glance the protagonists in “Intensive Care” are little more than stereotypes: Cherry Oxendine, the feisty and sexy redheaded waitress (she’s even a former cheerleader) who seduces Harold Stikes, a staid married man who is feeling neglected and peripheral to his wife and children’s lives. And yet by the end of the story, Harold and Cherry don’t feel like stereotypes. Smith is able to breathe life and substance into these characters through sparse narrative summary, thanks in part to the stereotypes.
“Intensive Care” revolves around the lives of Cherry Oxendine, the aforementioned redheaded waitress, who is dying of cancer in the hospital, and her husband of three years, Harold Stikes who left his family to marry Cherry. Stories of a middle-aged man leaving behind his wife and children for another woman—a flashier, younger (or at least younger-acting) woman—are nothing new. Anita Shreve wrote about it Fortune’s Rocks, Lynn Darling chronicled her own experience in Necessary Sins, and countless other novels and short stories have covered this familiar territory. However, Smith manages to make Cherry and Harold feel real, in spite of their clichéd romance, and one reason this works is because she can be judicious with her narrative summary because the characters are already familiar to the reader. Previous stories have provided us clues as to why a man like Harold would leave behind his wife and children for a woman like Cherry, which eliminates the need for lengthy explanations.
Take Smith’s characterization of Cherry. The reader already knows that Cherry is flashy and sexy and exciting; that’s a given. A man like Harold would not leave his wife and three children behind for a dull and practical woman. Yet, the reader is not prepared to learn that Cherry is also kind and trusting. The reader learns this through Cherry’s daughter Tammy, who is cynical and whip smart. Tammy tells her mom,
“You have a fatal flaw, Mama,” Tammy said after learning about fatal flaws in English class. “You believe everything everybody tells you.”
Still, Tammy loves her mother (Smith 561).
That last line “Still, Tammy loves her mother” helps the reader see Cherry as someone other than your typical sexy mistress. Filtering part of Cherry’s characterization through Tammy’s eyes allows the reader to see her in a different light.
The beginning of Harold and Cherry’s affair is also described, and while there is one mention of Cherry’s “dynamite figure” (Smith 566), the initial appeal of Cherry is her vivacity for life. Harold didn’t leave his wife for a sexy bimbo—he left her for a woman who wanted to talk to him, and who was passionate about her life.
Harold and Cherry talked and talked. They talked about their families, their kids, high school. Cherry told him everything that had happened to her. She was tough and funny, not bitter or self-pitying. They talked and talked. In his whole life, Harold had never had so much to say (Smith 566).
How intriguing that Harold didn’t leave his wife and children just to have incredible sex with someone else. In fact, Harold asks Cherry to marry him when she is in the hospital recovering from her mastectomy. Cherry was sick for most of their marriage, which meant that Harold’s attraction to her wasn’t purely sexual. It went deeper than that, which is an interesting surprise to the stereotypical situation of a man leaving his family for another woman.
Another short story that effectively utilizes stereotype is Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” In the story the protagonist Anders is an unhappy book critic who ends up getting shot during a bank robbery after repeatedly mocking the stereotypical bank robber who says things like: “Keep your big mouth shut!” and “One of you tellers hits the alarm, you’re all dead meat. Got it?” (Wolff 1)
Anders treats the rest of the bank robbery as if it is a disappointing book he is reviewing, and his disdain for the bank robbers isn’t for the fact that they are robbers, but that they are wildly unoriginal robbers. The bank robbery scene is therefore funny, which is the first surprise.
“Hey! Bright boy! Did I tell you to talk?”
“No,” Anders said.
“Then shut your trap.”
“Did you hear that?” Anders said. “‘Bright boy.’ Right out of ‘The Killers.’” (Wolff 2)
The second surprise is that the clichéd bank robber is an actual character who can harm Anders.
“Fuck with me again, you’re history. Capiche?”
Anders burst out laughing. He covered his mouth with both hands and said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” then snorted helplessly through his fingers and said, “Capiche—oh, God, capiche,” and at that the man with the pistol raised the pistol and shot Anders right in the head. (Wolff 3)
The reader shouldn’t be surprised that Anders gets shot—he’s openly mocking a sociopath with a gun, after all. But the robber seems like such a clichéd character that the reader is briefly lulled into believing that the robber isn’t real, and therefore can’t hurt Anders. Instead Wolff turns the stereotype on its head, and the reader is laughing right up to the moment when Anders is shot.
The clichés continue after Anders is shot, but the reader is aware that in the hands of Wolff, a cliché serves a higher purpose, whether for comic relief or sudden realism. The last two pages of the story are what Anders is thinking about as the bullet travels through his brain. Anders remembers a very ordinary summer evening playing baseball with a group of kids, long before he became an overly cynical book critic.
Once in the brain, that is, the bullet came under the mediation of brain time, which gave Anders plenty of leisure to contemplate the scene that, in a phrase he would have abhorred, “passed before his eyes.” (Wolff 4)
Wolff handles this clichéd situation deftly, first by allowing us to know how much Anders would have hated the phrase of a “a life passing before his eyes” and secondly by turning the cliché around by telling the reader this: “It is worth noting what Anders did not remember, given what he did remember.” (4) Wolff lists all the things and people that did not pass before Anders’ eyes: his first lover, his wife, his daughter, the poems he memorized in school, his parents. This allows the reader to accept the clichéd premise of a “final memory” because it furthers Anders’ character development in a surprising and touching way.
Wolff’s story uses the stereotypical characters as foils to Anders’ jaded cynicism. Anders is so used to critiquing books full of clichéd language and unoriginal situations that when he finds himself in a real-life situation that feels predictable, he seems to have the illusion that he can control and critique the events. Without the stereotypical bank robber character, Anders’ death might not have been as jarring or surprising.
It can be tempting to discount the idea of collective knowledge (aka stereotypes) a writer has to choose from when crafting characters and plot. And yet, this shared knowledge is what a writer can draw from when he needs a jumping off place, either with a character or a plot. A skilled writer can still tease out a nuanced character and story, even with a stereotypical character or situation. In fact, the best kinds of surprises in a story often occur when the reader feels oriented in a story and assumes he knows what is going to unfold, only to be surprised by where the writer takes the story.
Want more on stereotypes and characters? Click here to read Card’s article in Writers Digest