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Character development is not about description, it’s a plot arc. If nothing else, that’s the easiest take-away I know. Remember that whatever your character situation. But if you’re looking for more definite ideas, try these:

Signs your character is taking shortcuts instead of involving:

1. Description: With a third of the current description deleted, could your target audience still guess all the missing details you have prescribed? If this is the case, fine, let them. Save trees or it’s time to write a more complicated character.

2. Dialog: Is your dialog easily mistaken as originating from a popular brand or icon? If you are going to use Paris Hilton or Mr. T in your story, then let it be a parody or a satire about getting to know the actual Paris Hilton or Mr. T. At this point, Mr. T isn’t a description he’s a known stereotype. Regardless of moral judgments assigned to stereotypes, more importantly they’re just such overpowering associations. Millions of dollars have been spent saturating the social consciousness with these icons as a done package. You will be bleaching all the subtle tones of the rest of your story if you squash them with predictable pop figures in disguise.

3. Interaction: Do others wait patiently to hear what your character has to say? Nine times out of ten, you are creating a token power structure rather than a believable and realistic (read: respectful) relationship world for that character. Monologues can be very powerful if they reveal wit and tension in the character talking, but the reverse is what’s known as table dusting. The problem occurs when you give a character so little real interactivity in the story that he or she is relegated to half-time intermission cheer leading or sideline gossip. The metaphor goes, while two maids dust the tables at the opening of a scene they set up the tension of the main characters through random or forced exposition. It’s great to have a character slip an interesting fact in about another while in character, but to have the character’s soul laid bare in a one sentence monologue is more like an autopsy. More importantly, there’s very little you can set up in a glazed over summary that won’t be a stereotype. At that point, you’ve either got a flat character, or even more work disproving the stereotype than if you’d just avoided the table dusting to begin with. Now if you want to set a Red Herring, cheers to you!

4. Self Identity: Does your character fixate on an aspect of self-hood that does not actually tie into the plot arc or character arc within the frame of the story? I don’t make every personal conversation I have about my particular status in a variety of different groups. I do discuss it some, but the key is relevance. Every word spoken in your story has to serve a purpose. Yes, really. Whether it’s painting the backdrop of social tension in the home, or building the culturally acceptable level of intimacy your characters share for believability as the relationships progress, unless the problem with your character is his failure due to frequent non-sequiturs in professional conversation, don’t dirty bomb your story with details that in all honesty represent a part of yourself that you really want to write a story about anyway. Don’t be lazy. If you have a story to tell, tell it. If this is not your story, go tell the other. Make it powerful, not token.

5. B-Sides: If you took away some defining characteristic of your character, would this hypothetical person still have other definable and unique characteristics that a reader could identify? In classic story structure the hero typically starts his or her quest going after the perceived self, and succeeds when the real goal is revealed. If you’re not writing a story about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, your character is going to suddenly begin to look like the body snatchers got to work when the page got turned. Your readers will then begin to see the inner workings of your plot, and will be suddenly distracted from your message. Bravery is great, but there had better be a fear of losing under that bravery, or your character has no thread of a quest to overcome and entertain us for the length of a story.

6. Image System: Is your character totally out of touch with a plot that will uncover their many complex affiliations? Is the character doing something initially that brings deeper meaning later when we realize why?

To put the whole question of stereotyping another way, is it better to be subtle and purposefully open-ended and risk being seen as ashamed of writing certain groups inclusively into your fictional reality, or is it best to stake a claim in the ground and use a story as a platform for bringing up a social group or hot topic? There are no right answers, but there are risks with each path to writing characterization.

Ask yourself, are you writing for a specific readership in mind, or is there a risk that others outside this group will want to enjoy your works? – and more importantly, do you want there to be a risk of readers from different perspectives all self-identifying with your story?

Certainly there is arrogance to universality, as if any human being could write such a classic story that everyone might want in on the action. But the flip side – driving the pendulum to the opposite camp – is basically participating in the same power strategy for dominant cultural assumptions as before. This is every bit as forgetful by some new group to claim all of human nature for themselves as the old group was to claim all that is holy in their own time. Soon there will be a new group that was just as marginalized to the same effect, so the King of the Hill strategy does not stand up to history and in fact explains how a lot of the richer meaning in past myth has been lost due to the dominant assumptions that seemed self-evident at the time.

In other words, instead of might makes right for social credit given to appealing character types, how about simply removing the blatant assumptions that your character is of course a member of whatever group? Leave it open, messy, complicated, and relevant. That means avoiding what you believe to be the given truths about your own culture as well. Your writing will improve the smaller you make your blind spot.

The Reader Makes Their Own Decisions

Don’t be so negative, I hear you say. Loosen up! Everybody makes cartoon cultures these days! Really, I’m not being that staunch. I can introduce you to staunch. But I am being critical, since the whole point of identifying new group and cultures is the art of being critical and socially discerning, no moral judgment implied either way. Your audience is going to add whatever personal experiences they have to bring. But I also feel that opening a path for them to do so is actually the more optimistic approach to writing diverse characterization. I also believe when presuming the true meaning of any social commonality, as a writer there is a real responsibility to be thoughtful and go beyond often oversimplified and therefore insulting assumptions for why life is hard or amusing, or worth living as perceived by different cultures, and really dig into what those characterizations really are. Make that commitment and world building happens more naturally.

Some Beginner Ground Rules for Avoiding Stereotypes:

1. Discipline yourself to avoid presumptions about how groups of characteristics go together.

2. Attempt to avoid all instantly identifiable characteristics of groups and cultures to which you do not understand more intimately. Start by avoiding them all-together. Realize how much you paint your protagonists and villains into tiny uninteresting corners. Explore what is less obvious about a group. Build compassion and connection with the reader, and surprise them.

3. Remember the surviving stories from other cultures never let a stereotype stand in for personal character identity. They were oral traditions embellished and given relevance on a tell-by-tell basis. What we have left are the bones of the animal, not the intended presentation. Those bones are your guide to a sturdy story mechanics. Resonating with early mythology says more about the similarities to human nature than the culture from which they came. The universal experiences that remain are still there for you to fill in those more subtle details. The fact that any recognizable form remains at all through the years is actually a sign of good storytelling. It shows past authors introduced a socially mobile meme into existence that can help build (and sometimes rebuild) new and evolving understanding of what it means to be human and perhaps fulfilled in a complicated world. This is possibly the original point of all shabby and misunderstood stereotypes long decayed past their use. Find the hose not the burning pile. Likely something’s under that great mess.

4. Remember the most powerfully motivating stories about social causes do not paint those causes as exclusive to any single stereotype or group. Do not attempt to subdue one misfortune or injustice in your story by marginalizing the opposite. Re: history, this never works and it isn’t a great model to support in literary fantasies, unless as a cautionary tale. Even then, mind the clue-by-fours. Be subtle and let the audience make their own connections to personally held stereotypes of iconic characterizations – that way the story comes home to them.

Myth Making in Modern Story-Telling

Legends are universal by design and frequently are more commercially successful because of it. This also explains a lot of the cyclical return to stories of mythology during downturns. Good myths remain socially evolving. There is truth to the appearance that dominant culture controls the wisdom of human past only if we let these preconceptions go unchallenged. Reclamation is the winning factor, not more of the same polarization shifted to a different side. Most myths today as we see them show only the recent paint job by the highest bidder. The human insights remain veiled until you peel down to the inner human experiences that other cultures have realized and implanted in story.

Is all this planning really necessary? Some people say no and write whole books at a sitting. As a disclaimer though, these people generally have quite a few early practice rounds that were works in progress before they got the hang of belting out sonatas. I certainly think there are no guarantees that planning produces a perfect story, especially on the first shot. I think it depends on the writer, but to have read this far, you might be someone who has found some interesting solutions to story problems you’ve run into without this level of structuring your characterizations. Really, I find it makes it easier to change your mind in the initial planning doodles. A doodle takes a day. A book edit takes functionally forever.

Is This Really Even Humanly Possible?

It sounds like a lot of effort, but the end payoff is worth it. The writer can be more honest with the reader up front about where the story is coming from by trying to leave the end text as stereotype-neutral as possible. Some personal bias always slips in because writers are human, and to strive for perfection is great, but to assume you have created it is frankly insulting to your audience. Attempting to focus on themes that are universal can build a powerful advantage and trust. Focusing on story rather than trying to use story as a vehicle for this or that often very simplistic and not very integrated message generates far more opportunity for social commentary that is relevant and powerful. By paying attention to the limitations of personal social experience, and trying to stay out of the picture, the writer makes a choice to let the story stand on its own merit. As a social commentary it then forces the reader to define and become aware of that defining process – much more powerful to show change – how it happens internally and emotionally, not table dust about it.

Good writers eventually choose to build their own mythology, and in doing so lose a little of the arrogance in presuming to fence in any group or character with exclusive stereotypical assumptions. This is why it works to begin by shedding as much of that personal baggage as possible. Not allowing yourself to define your character in predictable terms will result in better character creation.

The Caveat

First write what you’re going to write – don’t let fear of criticism dissuade you if you have good characterization and you’re tacking a really hot social topic, and frankly, you like what you’ve got. Done well, those are exactly the sorts of much-needed stories that make writing socially relevant. Also, a good scene is a good scene, and there’s no one I know who hasn’t done a scene and stolen it later as a shortcut to completion on an unrelated project.

Just remember a certain amount of self-questioning shouldn’t automatically be viewed as counterproductive for a writer who wants to approach really hot-button aspects of social identity. Stripping your own biases out of the story should be seen as mindful attempt to counteract the writer’s own social limitations in personal experience. I’m always warmed reading people who have a genuine interest in tackling tough cultural and social questions. But I am cautious of the way it’s done because it’s far more frequent that a writer mistakes a stereotype for a culture totally by mistake than for a writer to just write a good, complicated, interesting character who happens to be considered a member of one group or another by the reader. In fact the more readers who want to identify your character with themselves or in the case of the villain, their real-life opponents, the better you’ve done your job.