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.
It’s generally understood even by nascent storytellers that writing cliche or stereotyped characters is bad. Being able to recognize such weaknesses in the work of others is useful, but ultimately says little about how to construct complex, believable characters in one’s own stories.
For writers struggling to find their way, the dichotomous stereotype represents a logical step in adding dimension to a character, but it’s still premised on writing from types. Like multiplying an equation by zero, it doesn’t matter how complicated the rest of the formula is. The answer is always going to be zero.
The second-generation Italian-American gangster has always been a nationality-group stereotype, the opposite of which is the warm-hearted boy who works hard, plays the violin and loves his mother’s spaghetti. Extremes — opposites — like this can be found within any grouping. Just put the mother’s picture in the gangster’s pocket and you think you’ve achieved some depth of characterization, but all you’ve got is flip-flop typing.
The impulse to go down this road is obvious. Writing from types saves time and makes everything blindingly (if not insultingly) obvious. Television excels at this kind of characterization, but movies and novels are not immune.
I’ve never enjoyed the Godfather movies or the Sopranos for exactly the reason Hills outlines above: I can never get away from the feeling that what I’m watching is a dichotomous stereotype rather than a convincing depiction of character. I also can’t shake the feeling that the world would be a better place if everyone just got thrown in jail or whacked. (Goodfellas is the only mob movie I’ve ever seen that worked for me.)
As with plot, there can be a tendency to construct characters with secrets, mysteries or hidden qualities that will be revealed as a story goes on. While these hidden aspects can and do create suspense and produce surprise, curiosity and uncertainty, such reader reactions tend to be as corrosive as they are when those same techniques are employed in plotting.
As previously discussed, the best way to create enduring interest in your story is to focus on tension and anticipation. The same holds true for character. Adhering to types almost demands that you throw in a reversal or switch as a means of justifying the type in the first place, which leads directly to the dichotomous stereotype. But that only leads to more trouble.
It is easy to see why the dichotomous stereotype is so often found in melodrama, farce and slick fiction. Containing its opposite within itself, so to speak, a dichotomous stereotype characterization comes all set up and ready for a character shift.
Stories are artificial constructs, not reality. Particularly when creating stories that must compete in a marketplace it’s understandable that authors look for pyrotechnic moments and roller coaster sequences to keep the audience’s attention — often by any means necessary. But shallowness in plotting or characterization, no matter how histrionic, has a demonstrably negative effect. If you’re willing to treat any aspect of your story as disposable for momentary gain then that’s how your stories will resonate in the audience’s mind.
I’ve known a number of people in my life who have gone through sudden and dramatic changes in their lives, including the loss of loved ones or dramatic reprieves from almost certain death. In every instance, without exception, what’s surprised me is how little change those experiences have produced in the people who endured them. In stories such events usually have a clear effect, often subtle in art and overtly dramatic in commercial narratives. But in real life that doesn’t seem to be what happens.
The character of a real person — and a fully-realized character in fiction — seems more like an iceberg in mass and make-up than in its visible and submerged portions. An iceberg is the same all the way through, and almost inexorable in its momentum. Crash a great, Titanic ship into it and it’s the ship that sinks, not the iceberg. The ship may leave a scar, but it’s still the ship that goes down.
How to create, integrate and dramatize your characters is of course the question, and one which Hills addresses in the next few sections.
Next up: Differentiating From Types.
— Mark Barrett
Comment Policy: Ditchwalk is a wild place, but not without tending. On-topic comments are welcomed, appreciated and preserved. Off-topic or noxious comments are, like invasive species, weeded out.