The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.
This is a short section in which Hills makes what at first might seem to be a peripheral point about characterization:
The average farm boy is far more like the average boy from Brooklyn than the “typical” farm boy is like the “typical” boy from Brooklyn.
Boys will boys the world around. And girls will be girls. Genetics and environment provide individualization — as do the life choices boys and girls make — but the commonalities remain. As discussed in the previous section, to write about a type of character is to ignore all commonalities and exaggerate any differences. (If such descriptions become culturally known they risk becoming stereotypes.)
The tendency to write about types — about exaggerated differences — clearly has resonance with drama. A story full of blandly average people is going to seem flat next to a story of radical, exaggerated types. If you’re writing farce or melodrama that might actually be a good thing, but if you’re writing drama, rendering characters as types will almost inevitably conflict with your goals.
Again, it seems to me that the correct response when writing from (or trying to avoid) types is to move toward the average character or the norm — particularly if you aspire to any sort of realism. Typical characters, because they are exceptions, are both exciting and exhausting. They attract attention but don’t hold up to scrutiny.
Whether a type is drawn from reality or from well-worn characterizations common to fiction, the author’s duty is always to make it their own, and make it integral to the work at hand. As Hills notes:
Types then — and this is especially true in writing — are used to distinguish or separate persons or characters, to emphasize differences, and not, as is commonly thought, used to lump them together with a lot of others.
Writers turn to types to create dramatic differences with a minimal amount of effort. It should be noted, however, that writing was never meant to be easy, and that individualizing characters from types should be the minimum you’re willing to do. The maximum would be ignoring types and categories of characters and presenting characters that are organic to your work.
Next up: Type Characters, as against Stock Characters.
— Mark Barrett
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