Today I’m going to talk about characters, motivation, stereotypes and The What If? Game.
Now, you might think that some of this applies only to fictional writing, not to personal essays or to non-fiction. But all forms of writing involve characters, and to paint them well in your writing, you need to understand them, who they are and what makes them tick.
There are lots of stereotypes out there and there’s an argument to be made for stereotypes rather like the one for cliches: that there a number of traits in humans that appear over and over again. Think more closely, though: the jolly fat person; the ruthless Type A personality; the sweet granny; the crazy cat lady; the nutty professor; the neurotic housewife.
All stereotypes; all have some truth in them. But how many really jolly overweight people do you know? Happy, well adjusted housewives? Contented Type A’s? Smart, ambitious grannies? Perfectly ordinary professors? Jolly fat folk, not so many. But plenty of people who exhibit one or two traits but do not fit the stereotype.
Because we’re human. we all have many different traits rolled into one personality and it’s a big mistake – and lazy - to stereotype your characters along these simplistic lines.
Motivation, experience, and characterization go together. People react differently to different events based on their own natural inclinations colored by their experiences. Even if they appear, on the surface, to fit a particular personality stereotype, they won’t react true to that stereotype because of their different experiences.
So your characters shouldn't be stereotyped, either. Everything your character does is a reaction to events (or perceived events), based on his own personality and past experiences. For example, someone who is very confident, from a safe, financially secure family background, reacts a whole lot differently to a setback than someone who has never had money or family support, has no backup systems and a lot to lose.
The company folds:
The company CEO, we’ll call him Jack, is probably relieved. After years of work, he looks forward to early retirement with his golden handshake
The tea boy, Stu, knows he doesn’t have much by way of qualifications and doesn't have much chance of finding another job, so he’s depressed.
Lizzie, whose husband owns his own car dealership, shrugs and thinks she'll have to persuade her husband to pay for her facelift, after all.
Peter just got married and took out a mortgage, sure that he’ll get promotions and raises to build a secure future for his family, one he didn’t have growing up. Probably the worst hit of all, unless his wife has a very good job and even then he may experience panic or depression.
Superficially, you would imagine that they would all react according to their circumstances. But we can shake that up a bit. This is where we play the What If game -
What if Jack, the company CEO, has been embezzling and knows that the auditor will look at the books closely now the company has folded? He may be looking at jail time.
What if Stu, our teaboy, doesn’t give a damn about his lack of qualifications for another job, because he just won the $4.5 million lottery?
What if Lizzie was planning to leave her abusive husband and this job was a way of squirreling some money away for herself?
What if Peter's new wife is the daughter of a very rich family who hate Peter and will use his lack of a job to try to pry them apart?
Do you see how the storylines can emerge – and what a difference the non-stereotyped personality and motivation makes?
It's important to avoid stereotypes. People are complex beings, and nothing ruins a good book more than putting obvious motivations onto clichéd characters.
Taken from Naked Writing: The No Frills Way to Write Your Book.