The full title of this section is Type Characters, as against Stock Characters. It’s a continuation of the previous section, in which Hills makes a further distinction:
Let us say that a stock character is one we have grown too familiar with, through having seen him over and over in films and in novels and stories and on TV, always performing the same role or function in the plot.
Hills defines the stock character as a plot cliche, while the type character discussed in previous sections is a cliche of characterization. It’s a rather tidy analysis, and I think he’s right about the distinction.
What particularly interest me, however, is something Hills says at the end, almost as an aside. It’s the kind of observation that brings not simply technique into focus, but also culture and meaning as it applies to the craft of fiction.
It was always thought through the ages that personality determined behavior, that, in the words of the Greeks, “Character is fate.” What you did and what happened to you came as a result of what you were.
But the latest psychological approaches — both in theory and in therapy — tend to emphasize roles rather than types. The part we play in life becomes the destiny that defines us.
Originally written in 1977, these words have faded a bit because psychological practice has evolved. Leaving aside people with true psychosis, emphasis now is on cognitive measures by which people can cope with and manage their problems — with or without the aid of chemistry.
But in a historical context Hills is right, not only about psychology but about literature. It has long been my belief that the great strength of Southern fiction is that it has steadfastly refused to adopt a psychological premise. Characters in Southern fiction, unlike any other region I can think of including the Mountain West, have retained the right to be characters and not psychological profiles.
In contrast, most of the storytelling that originates in the Northeast and Southern California firmly embraces psychology as the basis of characterization — and by extension places emphasis on roles rather than types. Even my earlier description of my own process of characterization meets this definition: I define characters more by external context (role) than by internal dynamics (type).
Whether you agree with my regional theory or not, the fact remains that the distinction between innate characters and role-driven characters offers writers a great deal of flexibility in creating narratives. Rather than approaching all characters in the same way, writers can elect to create characters by a mix of means: some driven by internal truths, others determined more by context and circumstance.
Next up: The Dichotomous Stereotype.
— Mark Barrett