Hills opens this section by acknowledging the utility of types. Between the inherent drama, clear distinctions and time savings gained by using types as templates, there’s a lot to recommend them. But as noted in previous sections types must be individualized.
How is that done? Here’s Hills, making overt what he earlier implied:
In differentiating a main character from a type, the problem is whittling the extravagant back toward the average, a process of individualization.
No matter how many times I read that sentence the same image comes to mind. It is a literal metaphor of an actor leaving the stage through the wings. On stage the actor played a type — an exaggerated character — but offstage the actor moves toward the norm, individualizing from the role they just played. (I would suggest this is one of the fascinations we all have with actors, both as performers-in-character and in real life.)
I am not suggesting that you actually present a type and then attempt to reveal more. I think that’s a mistake and leads to the kind of weak characterization discussed in the previous post. Rather, I think you should contemplate your characters in an offstage context before you begin to write, asking questions that go beyond, but are related to, type. What kind of person would adopt such an on-stage type/role? Who might adapt such a type/role to their own use?
In the previous quote Hills specifically talks about “a main character.” In doing so he leads into this:
The validity of types seems to depend on the distance from which the character is seen. From sufficient distance almost anyone will seem to fall into a type — whether regional or occupation or whatever — perhaps into several types.
There’s a lot to think about here, but also a lot to make use of. An author’s ability to focus on a character is defined both by point of view and by available space. First-person point of view allows the author to inhabit the mind of the main character, but distances the reader from the rest of the cast. Third-person omniscient allows access to everyone, but without the focal intensity found in first person. By the same token, in a short story or half-hour sitcom economy of characterization is critical. In a mini-series or novel there’s more time to spend on characterization.
It’s a maxim of mine that good storytelling involves leading the audience to the doorstep of their own imagination. That’s how suspension of disbelief is created and sustained, and why I can never shake a feeling of unease when my prose becomes conspicuously literary. I don’t want people commenting on my brush strokes, I want them to feel if not believe in what I’ve painted. Connecting with the audience’s emotional and imaginative impulses, often by triggering associations and being careful not to over-describe, helps me accomplish that goal.
Differentiating from types becomes easier if you approach the task in the same way. Instead of starting with a type in your story, recognize that any type implicitly implies considerable distance in point of view, as well as a general cultural sense of what that type means. You don’t describe or portray the type as a type, you merely suggest it, and it doing so it evokes extant associations for the reader. Individualizing and differentiating then becomes a process of moving closer in point of view and focus, as well as moving toward the norm and away from exaggeration.
Here’s an excellent example from Hills:
From a distance a trainful of suburbanites will all seem like “typical suburbanites”; but inside they know what a mixed bag they are.
Note the word “inside”. Types imply authorial distance, but because readers come to your story with types already established that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Differentiating from types involves moving closer, zooming in,and getting to know characters as individuals rather than groups.
Next up: Knowing a Character.
— Mark Barrett