Working with and Past Stereotypes
“Write what you know” is a common phrase people hear when starting out, but at some point every writer is creating characters different from themselves; people from different parts of the world, different professions, cultures, and personalities, not to mention the fact that half the world is a different gender.
Stereotypes are a good place to start. Stereotypes represent the assumptions and expectations others apply to a character. Some are based on culture and tradition, such as dressing and acting a certain way, while others are an outsider’s attempt to oversimplify. Regardless of the source, stereotypes are a constant force in any person’s life, pushing them in specific directions.
Most people pick and choose where to resist, ignore, or embrace. Growing up, many young boys were encouraged to play sports. Some enjoy it, some tolerate it, and some refuse. Many young girls were encouraged to play with dolls and simulate a domestic life, and they had the same mixed reaction.
When creating a character, consider the world they live in, the assumptions and expectations applied to them, and how these external forces interact with and influence the character’s interests and goals. Characters will rarely 100% conform or reject, but the stronger the external pressure, the less likely a character is to resist it, and the more defining it is for someone to do so.
For example, in 21st century America it is not uncommon for people to remain single for much of their life, but in other cultures, and other time periods, it is far less common, making that characteristic more defining of a character as a whole.
Female characters often prove challenging for male writers. As far back as ancient mythology women were the reason and cause of a change, but not the agents of change, or as a female counterpart, mirroring the protagonist. Women in fiction should not be defined by their relationship with men. Gender should only ever be an accent on identity, not a defining feature.
However, there are some differences between men and women, mostly in methodology.
The following are all trends, not absolutes.
1. When navigating, men are more likely to rely on spatial relationships, while women will more easily remember where things are.
2. Women more easily recognize and anticipate a problem; which can lead to anxiety.
3. Women are often more sensitive to variations in color.
4. Men generally handle lack of sleep better than women do.
5. Men often focus on individual independence and “the self”, while women tend to be more accepting of co-dependence and “the group”.
Children are often used as a handicap, rather than a real character. In ignorance they cause trouble and create additional work for the adults, who must provide for, protect, and guide them. In reality a child is a person with fewer life experiences/memories to guide them in their decision making, but they can imagine complex concepts just as an adult can. Often the greatest challenge is that they they may lack the language skills to properly express their ideas.
The most striking difference between children and adults is that children are be less prepared. The joys and sorrows of life often affect a child much more than an adult. Children often serve as a reminder to recognize the simple joys in life; to see the world with wonder and awe, but underneath that there is a mind, doing the best it can with limited resources.
Writing Different Characters