In the last post I talked about contentious issues and how they can be used to grab a reader’s attention. But sometimes issues can sneak into a story without the writer being aware of them, and in a way that can reflect very badly on the story and on the writer.
The main character is usually well defined, as are the core set of supporting characters, but there are a whole host of other smaller parts, from the neighbour with the occasional line of dialogue to the girl at the coffee shop who never says a word, that populate a fictional world and give it a life beyond the two or three people that really matter to the story.
And it is these small, seemingly insignificant roles, that can lead readers to infer things about the writer’s view of the world that the writer never intended and doesn’t think.
A black mugger, a flamboyantly gay waiter, a housewife—racist, homophobic, sexist. If a character makes only a short appearance and has traits that are considered stereotypical or clichéd, or maybe even offensive, the typical reaction is to think the writer is expressing his personal prejudices. But this is rarely the case.
When you write a minor character you don’t have the space or time to create a fully-rounded backstory and in-depth characterisation. But you still want the character to be more than a beige lampshade that does its job without really being notices. And often the quickest and easiest way to add a little colour to your tertiary characters is to make them an archetype.
The reader can visualise them more easily, they make more of an impact, and their interactions become more memorable.
In some cases that character comes from real life. Sometimes people behave in clichéd ways, and since it’s a writer’s job to observe the world and incorporate it into their fiction, they end up portraying them in what they consider a truthful way. If you were mugged by a guy who happened to be black and you wrote it into a story, does that mean you’re a racist?
The easiest way to stop an archetype turning into a stereotype is to explore their viewpoint a little more—whenever you look inside someone’s head and see why they act the way they do and what they really hope will come of it, you go beyond cliché and start dealing with real people—but it would be weird if the guy delivering the package got to make a two page speech about his reasons for wolf whistling at girls on the street.
You can of course come up with characters who are not stereotypical, but when you have only a limited amount of words to give a character some life, and then he’s never heard from again, it can seem a waste of energy to spend too much time crafting a unique and fascinating individual. And even if you do it can become a distraction—the flamboyantly gay waiter who’s also incredibly racist is not something you see every day. But at the same time if he’s too unusual the reader might be more interested in him what made him that way and lose track of the main narrative.
There are a number of ways to avoid this situation. First, good dialogue is very helpful. Even the most basic and utilitarian of characters can come alive if they have something interesting to say or an interesting way of saying it.
The flamboyantly gay waiter who delivers his orders with a side-serving of heavy sarcasm can win over the most sensitive of readers, if his lines are scathing enough.
The wife who seems to never leave the house and whose only role is to cook and clean for the hero can take on an extra dimension if she curses like a sailor no matter how innocuous the conversation.
It also helps to acknowledge a character’s questionable behaviour. If the guy making sandwiches makes a casual anti-semitic remark and someone comments on it, that can be enough to prevent the reader thinking the writer hates Jews. People who hold a prejudicial opinion rarely think of themselves as prejudiced, so simply addressing it makes it clear the writer is aware of how the character is behaving.
Having more than one of any particular group can make it less offensive too, although if you only have two black guys in your story, and one’s a mugger and the other’s a drug addict it probably won’t have a very positive effect. As blatant and obvious as it might be, simply making the judge a black guy can neutralise any suspicions. Mind you, this trick is often used by writer’s with unsavoury views to get away with all sorts of unpleasantness.
And then there’s always the most popular approach, which is to ignore what other people may or may not think and just make the main storyline so interesting and exciting that even those who find the most to object about can’t help but keep reading. Anyone who’s read one of the big blockbusters of the last few years will recognise this approach as very common and not at all a hindrance to making a shed-load of money.
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