We continue exploring character this week. Last week, we talked voice - creating strong character voice in young adult stories. I shared a list of attributes to pay attention to when crafting your character (tone, cadence, slang, etc.) Don't forget, if you subscribe to newsletters, you gain access to more helpful tips hidden around this site!
Today, let's look at stereotypes - specifically, how can we avoid them when crafting our characters?
When first creating my characters, I consider some basics as I develop their personality.
Q1. What's their goal? What does this character truly want in the story?
Q2. What's in their way of achieving that goal? What obstacles - people, ideas, beliefs, physical structures - keep them from reaching that goal?
Q3. What lie do they believe about themselves that must be revealed in order to release them from their internal conflict?
The answers to these three questions drive my plot. Once I answer these, I can focus on my character's personality, appearance, habits. Here I can be creative or stereotypical. Here lies the challenge.
Let me explore this process with my current work in progress (WIP) and my main character (MC) and other supporting characters.
A1. A teen needs to know if s/he's responsible for his parents' death.
A2. S/he's afraid to know the truth. S/he's afraid to feel the pain of their loss and her/his possible contribution. S/he's been lying to her/himself for seven years about what s/he did and how s/he might be responsible. S/he was nine at the time, and her/his memory now at sixteen plays tricks.
A3. S/He believes that liars must be punished and that's why her/his parents died - because s/he lied to them.
As I develop my character, I consider who is the typical person in this scenario (that depends on my own personal world and experiences). Then I ask who would be the least obvious type of person to deal with this situation. Who would have the hardest time feeling the pain and letting go of the lie?
To me, the person who'd struggle the most is a boy without siblings to support him. I need to throw in more obstacles. This is where I can break stereotypes, give my male character some other challenges. What if he lives with his grandmother who thinks he's perfect because he gets good grades, cleans up after himself and is polite to her? What if she leaves him the task of fixing the fence, but he doesn't know how. Then a girlfriend shows him how to use a saw and this becomes a metaphor for the fences he builds around himself?
Next, I create his physical self. Here, I don't ask who would be typical, I ask who would need to work the hardest. What if my character struggles with self-acceptance (like so many teens), but his issue is about race? What if my character is trying to understand two racial worlds? His dad was black, his mom white. Now, this becomes a metaphor for integrating the dark and light within himself.
Now we have a story and a character unequipped to handle what lies ahead. He's going to need to ask for help. I can continue to chip away at other stereotypes in my supporting characters - like the girlfriend who's an expert with power tools or a teacher who's unprepared for class or a grandmother who isn't a master baker.
We make assumptions when we meet people. Our job as writers is to challenge those assumptions in the characters we create, give our readers food for thought.
What do you think about when crafting your characters? How do you avoid stereotypes?
Answer my three questions, and share your character in the comments below.