Sunday, November 16, 2008
Character and Stereotype
When I started doing comics, one of the hardest things for me to bend my head around was the necessity of stereotypes. But the sad truth is, they *are* necessary.
In real life, the deadly Mossad assassin probably looks like a plumber. The best martial artists are often either thick, rubbery and potbellied or downright emaciated. And your friendly neighborhood tattooist may be a fan of opera who speaks five languages.
Too bad. In the modern campfire tales we tell in print, a certain amount of stereotyping aids believability. If I bring Mossad assassins into a comics panel, they'd better look like Carrie Anne Moss in The Matrix or I'd better have a damn good reason. Same if my martial arts master doesn't carry at least a whiff of Bruce Lee or Jet Li, or better still, a frail little old man who just sort of smiles when threatened.
If I'm telling a drama, my hero needs to look heroic, or readers won't buy it. In comedy, I can send a Woody Allen lookalike charging through that door, but not drama.
Novels are not as bad as comics that way. Mostly because in prose the reader makes his own mental picture. The novelist does have more flexibility, but only some. We still don't want Jack Reacher short and tubby with a bald spot, Scarlett O'Hara with a lazy eye and halitosis, Conan with bad teeth or the creepy inbred inhabitants of Dunwhich to host an annual festival to boost tourism.
Stereotypes enable a quick scan. They're sensory filters, a part of our hunter/gatherer instincts, a general-classification thing that's hardwired into our brains. It was useful when our lives were all about edible/inedible, predator/prey, safety/danger. In the same way our ancient ancestors didn't carefully examine every single blackberry on each and every bush before eating, we modern types use that general-classification thing to navigate a bewildering variety of social encounters. Intimacy takes time, it takes interest, it requires the sort of deeper exchange that really pisses off everyone waiting behind you at the drive-thru window.
Same as intimacy takes time in real life, it takes time in a story. Same as it's not always appropriate in real life (they still won't let me back to that Burger King), it's not worth getting to know each and every character in your novel. So the big question, the one should be hanging in front of every writer's mind is, is it worth getting to know this character? How deeply?
Your first-person protagonist can be a tangled nest of contradictions. Most of us are. We understand this about ourselves, and we'll understand these contradictions in the person we spend 300 pages with. The supporting cast too. Less so, in the same way that we understand our friends. They don't tell us everything (any more than we share our every dark secret with them), but enough. The kid at the drive-thru? Probably best to let it go at a mention of his paper hat and his acne, if you need to mention him at all.
And that, really, is the heart of the matter. It's a choice, always a choice. And it's a choice that needs to be intelligently made. In Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino brilliantly shattered the hitman stereotype as Vince and Jules make small talk right up to 'We ought to have shotguns.' But just as brilliantly, he leaves Marsellus, Lance, Fabienne and The Wolf pretty much as we find them. Crime boss, dealer, girlfriend, fixer. Expanding them further would have killed the narrative flow.
Next post, I just may well argue the opposite position. You see, it too is true...