Things to Avoid in your Writing #3: Stereotypical Characters

Stereotypical characters.  They’re everywhere, and honestly, it’s a bad look for any medium of fiction.  We’ve all seen them, and they take many forms.

Here’s a quick example:

Not Another Teen Movie

Ridiculous and Extreme Example, but it Proves a Point.

Do not, I repeat, DO NOT DO THIS!

Why?  Because they ruin everything!

Seriously, I’m not being dramatic here.  Stereotypical characters are terrible and they creep in without you even realizing what’s happened.  It’s so easy to fall into this trap, I would know, I do it to at least once a manuscript.

There’s so many times I’ve read through one of my own manuscripts and realized that I had totally ruined a character because I had been so busy focusing on my protagonist.  Even if I plan them out, I just get this tunnel vision and forget all the interesting and humanizing things I thought up for the ancillary characters.

Now this is terrible for two reasons.  Not only does it ruin the character and effectively render them dead weight, but it can also ruin your plot.

This will happen in two ways.  The first is that for the lack of a better word, the character is boring.  What this means is that they interact with the other characters and the plot in a very two-dimensional way.  Something no one wants in their writing.  The other way they ruin the plot is that when I called them dead weight, I literally meant that they were dead weight.  Whenever they’re in a scene the plot grinds to a halt because the characters too busy being one of the fools you see in the picture above.

How to avoid such a common and easily fell into pit-fall?

DON’T PANIC!

At first, my first instinct was to take the entire character back to the drawing board and trying to, “fix”, them.  Let me tell you, this just doesn’t work.

I realized that even though they were written in as flat and uninteresting characters, they still had potential.  It works much better if you concentrate in adding to them.  As I’ve found, the best way to do this is to add a quality that’s the opposite of how they’re usually portrayed in the story.

If they’re the villain or just an unlikable cad, I’ll find a way to make them either relatable or give them a redeeming quality.

For example, say the villain of the story is an evil warlord in a fantasy novel and he’s unnecessarily cruel to his followers, I’ll give him a soft spot for his war-horse.

If the character’s a skirt chaser I’ll work in a scene where he’s great with kids, or have him help an old lady cross the street.

Whatever, it doesn’t matter.  Just do something to break up the static image you’ve created.  While usually the best way to do this is to show them doing the exact opposite, I’ll often times add in a component to his character/history where you can sympathize and maybe even empathize for the character.

If someone’s abusive I’ll give him a rough childhood.

If they’re a controlling boyfriend I’ll put them in a scenario where you see exactly how insecure they are.

It really doesn’t matter how you do it, just that you do it.

And of course, your plot should be changed accordingly to the changes in character but, here’s the thing.

If your plot has to change radically to accommodate the adjustment in this character, then you’re doing it wrong!

The best changes are made so that you should only have to tweak a few things here and there.  If you’re rewriting an entire section of your story to make that character better than you should either rethink how you’re going to add to that character or scrap them completely because they’ve proven their uselessness to the plot.

It’s a fine line to walk, but between your creative prowess and the instinct developed through your writing practice you’ll be able to navigate the potential minefield this scenario can turn into.

So, I’m curious.  Who here’s written a stereotypical character?  And if you did, how did you fix them?  Leave your answers in the comments below!

So what do you think?  Agree?  Disagree?  Think I’m nuts?  Whatever you think, please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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7 responses to “Things to Avoid in your Writing #3: Stereotypical Characters

  1. Pingback: Things to Avoid in your Writing #6: White Washing | Vincent Alcaras -- Author·

  2. I love to write but tend to run into this problem. When that happens I do like you said in the beginning and scrap the whole book. I have never been able to come back from it. Now I am not a professional writer and have yet to be published but I hope to in the near future.
    This truly helps a lot in deciding how to make a interesting character that is not all that sterotypical to the story. If I do happen to do that now I know how to fix it and make it work.

    Like

    • I’m glad what I wrote helped you, and honestly, there is no thing as a professional writer. I mean yeah, I suppose being published and living off of your writing makes you, “professional”, but at the end of the day a writer is a writer.

      Either you do it or you don’t. Everything else just comes with experience and a sourcing the world around you.

      Also, try taking a look at my post series about writing engaging characters at the link here: https://vincentalcarasauthor.com/2015/12/21/character-development-1/ That might help you as well.

      Happy writing and thanks for leaving a comment! I’m glad you liked my post.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Good post.
    Stereotypes are also very useful, they can hint at layers we cannot describe due to the rest of the story being of greater importance, from running out of space.
    Staying clear of glaring stereotypes is important, but with a few tweaks, like you mention they can become human and real.
    Archetypes not stereotypes is quite a good way of thinking about it.

    Like

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