Daily Archives: August 10, 2012

History and Fiction: Stereotypical Character Types

For the month of August, I thought I might take a closer look at some of the intersections between history and fiction and what we can learn from them.  In a very real way, most fiction claims to be some form of pseudo history–we are telling the tale of what we want our readers to believe are real people in a real world, and often the very best authors are the ones who can make us think all this really happened.  In that sense, I think that fiction almost always has something more to learn, within reason, from history.

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“Plucky?”

Picking up from last week, there is another level on which we have a tendency to impress literature onto history, and it also can get in the way of writing fiction that feels “real”:  the imposition of character types.  Speaking informally, I’ll mention only a few by name–The tragic hero;  The arch nemesis; The “plucky comic relief”; The wise sage; The exuberant but inexperienced youth.  Decades of literary research has left them all broken down and categorized in ways I can only begin to imagine.  The problem is that life very rarely graces us with such clear lines of demarcation between personalities.

Like the standard questing party in your average role playing game, different types of fiction often come equipped with a particular stable of stereotypical characters that can vary slightly based on a story.  Whether we intend it or not, we find ourselves looking for them, first as authors and then later as readers.  They become the standard by which creativity is measured.  Think of fantasy:  The wizard, the warrior, the thief, the young prince, the dwarf or halfling.  Even if an author is intelligent enough to purposely avoid including his/her particular laundry list of characters, we still have a tendency to pattern those that we do include after that character’s archetype.  Wizards have an annoying tendency to sound like Gandalf.  Big, brash warriors sound and awful lot like Boromir.  You get the idea.

From the perspective of literary criticism, there is something to be said for the process of breaking down characters into such specific categories and analyzing their attributes.  Through that study, we begin to understand exactly what it is about a personality that readers find attractive, and we see in detail how the interplay of the various factors inside that personality combine to produce certain effects in our readers.  The types give us something “hang our hats on,” for lack of a better description; they allow us to concisely summarize a very complex situation.  The issue emerges, I think, when we unconsciously (or overtly) begin to think of those types as ends in and of themselves.

The problem this causes should be obvious.  Real human beings are an incredibly complex mixture of vast amounts of experience and often contain myriad competing motivations that constantly struggle for control.  That means very, very few people fall neatly into any one character type and, when they do, they aren’t likely to linger there for long.  Big, brash warriors are also intelligent, thoughtful, and gentle.  The tragic hero, when examined closely enough, isn’t all that tragic.  The demonized villain turns out to be human after all.

Robert E. Lee has become such a stereotype of tragic virtue that historians now often call him the “Marble Man.”

In terms of writing actual history, the search for character types leads to the historian impressing his/her own thoughts onto a historical actor artificially.  Robert E. Lee becomes the angelic general who tragically lost a war while never losing a battle, when the truth is that, as amazing a general as Lee was, he made mistakes.  Adolph Hitler becomes literally demonic, when the truth is he was a human being who made some very real, very evil choices that seemed to him right according to his “progressive” ethic.  This is a problem on two fronts.  First, the author gets in the way of the truth about both men and distorts the facts about them.  Second, it means that we have nothing to learn from either situation—we learn from human beings, like ourselves.  In short, it results in history that may be either nostalgic or self-righteous (or both) but is also completely worthless.

For fiction, we can see in the temptation-to-type lessons both in what to do and what not to do, and I  expect that you’ve dredged up examples of both as you’ve read this:

  • On the one hand, there is little practical difference between character typing and plain stereotyping except that the former is a particular kind of the latter.  When an author forces his/her characters into a particular pre-made mold, they come out looking uncreative and bland to most intelligent readers.  The author is using a crutch to attempt to cover for a lack of creativity.  Worse, once the types become obvious, readers already know the rest of the story.  There is no “magic” left; there are no surprises.  Put bluntly, there is no reason to read the book.
  • On the other hand, understanding types—with a good dose of history—opens up all sorts of possibilities.  The types help isolate what it is that makes characters convincing and provocative.  Those aspects can then become part of a significant palate that, used intelligently, can allow the author to pluck the reader’s heartstrings like LHP’s own David Mitchel might a mandolin (and that is saying something).  The key often (but not always) is to muddy the waters.  To break the types apart and combine them into someone so complex it might resemble real humanity.  Used in the proper balance, a villain can be understood, pitied, and loathed—like Gollum.  A hero can be accessible, exciting, awe inspiring, and melancholy all at once—like Frodo.  Perhaps even better, you can play on people’s expectations, lull them into a false sense of security, and then do something new and dramatic.

No one thinks of him or herself as a stereotype.  Done right, readers will see enough of real people–of themselves–in the reality of your characters to bring those personalities home in real and touching ways.  Your characters can live, just like the real actors of history, in vivid memory.

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Other Posts in the History and Fiction Series

  1. Talking Turning Points
  2. Stereotypical Character Types
  3. Eras, Ages, and Everything Else….
  4. The Role of the Individual–Me Myself, and I