"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Thursday, October 3, 2013

They're not who you think they are

Yesterday, my buddy Drew wrote a post about his meeting with a hooker, back when he was working as a broadcast journalist. Yes, it was for a story, you crazy kids. You can read it here: http://crimefictioncollective.blogspot.com/2013/10/that-evening-i-spent-with-hooker.html. As it turns out, the prostitute he met was not the prostitute he thought he was going to meet. The cliché of the hardened woman, abused as a child and strung out on drugs, was replaced with a young girl who worried about being seen on camera because her mom watches the news.

This started me thinking about real people vs. writers' characters. I was at a read and critique at a writer's conference, listening to an excerpt. The writing was clearly strong, and the story had a certain level of intrigue. A young, naïve woman is taken captive and gang-raped by a group of men. They leave the house and she frees herself, finds some clothes, a little cash and...

Stops to heat up a can of soup and eat because she's hungry.

What? Maybe she is hungry, but why not grab a piece of something - bread, fruit, crackers - to go? Maybe she's so traumatized that she's not thinking clearly about getting out of the house before her attackers return. It's possible. But nothing communicated her motivation, and the action didn't seem related to the plot. The soup wasn't Chekhov's gun.

We argued with the writer for quite a while. I don't know if we ever changed his mind. It sure taught me a lesson, though.

A character can be anyone doing anything, but they have to make sense.

Perhaps a member of the family abused the young prostitute and is making money off her. Perhaps her family is struggling financially and she is trying to keep them off the street. There might be several ways to tell her story and make her believable. Since she really exists, there's got to be a way. (I'm sure Drew could find it.)

Perhaps the writer's young naïve woman really is so delirious she stops to heat soup. Perhaps she's not that naïve, she's a badass who sticks around to get revenge. Again, there might be several ways to make her actions understandable.

It's easy to create a character that everyone is familiar with. The geeky computer specialist. The Hispanic maid. The hooker with the heart of gold.

I'd like to suggest that it's just as easy to create a character than no one is expecting. The Hispanic computer specialist who is a body builder in her spare time. The college-educated white man who cleans hotel rooms. The housewife who moonlights as a call girl to feed her sex addiction and get paid for it. These people can exist in stories. The author only has to make us believe.

What are some of the characters you've read about (or seen on the screen) that turned a stereotype on its head?

Give me some great examples and I'll give you a free ebook.

1 comment:

kabell4 said...

Can't recall any fictional character that turned a stereotype on its head, but I used to work with a Latina software engineer who was a bad-*** Navy Reservist who could endure 123 degree heat in the desert and who told me once that she wanted to go to law school to become a lawyer. I thought, "Are you NUTS???" I don't know if she would make a believable character in a book or movie, even if all her motivations were thoroughly identified and understood. No one is that crazy driven.

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