Writing Tip #7 – What a Character!

Seemingly sometimes what a writer writes is not completely clear. What?!? Say it isn’t so. But it is… evidently. That is what I was told anyway when an excerpt from an earlier post was reposted and someone not familiar with the full text thought I was endorsing “mean people”.
Now I wasn’t; not that I couldn’t, endorse them in certain cases but it made me think about the characters writers “create”. And I put the word create in quotes because I have to ask do writers really “create” characters?

So… This blog is about Archetypes.

Archetypes are loosely defined as stereotypes.

(From dictionary.com) The original pattern or model from which all things of the same kind are copies or on which they are based; a model or first form; prototype.

And/Or

(In Jungian psychology) a collectively inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, image, etc., universally present in individual psyches.
Some years ago I was at a writer’s conference and one of the new books being promoted was a book on character archetypes and how to write them. Now I knew this writer was not quite a friend but was more than an acquaintance and I still could not bring myself to purchase that book. And even now I still feel the same about the book, I couldn’t buy it (not that you shouldn’t) because the idea, the very premise that a writer would look to someone else to tell them how to develop a character made me sad. Really, how can you call yourself a writer and not at the very least KNOW your characters, know their deepest darkest secrets, their greatest joys, their fears and their hopes, how can you not know their GOALS?   And WHY, WHY, WHY would any writer want to be a “copy” of someone else?

Now certainly there is the necessity for both reader and writer to categorize characters, like the hero or the villain, but a good writer can really muddy those waters so it’s not so easy to say this character or that one is the “bad guy” or the “good guy”.
I mean let’s go back to one of my favorite examples; the movie “Titanic”.  Pretty quick we pick up on the Jack character as being the “hero” at least to Rose. But what about that guy, the one she is supposed to wed, the one who by every account is willing to spoil and indulge her. Who while is very typical of his era is still very proud that such a woman is going to be his wife. Who is willing to also take care of her mother. What about that guy? Do you even remember his name? I do but only because I love the actor who played him (Billy Zane). He was Caledon (Cal) Hockley and he was cast as the “villain” but really what were his faults? He was dominating, but that was the way of men, especially successful men, of his time. A little condescending, but again it was the era. And he did throw a bit of a fit, smashing the china and all but really the woman he had been supporting (along with her mother), the one he was intending to make his wife, was stepping out on him AND if our hero had been so inclined to show a bit of jealousy we might have thought it passionate not evil. In truth I have always felt a little sorry for Cal, I did hope that after he arrived safely back in America he did find a woman who loved him and married him and I am sad still knowing he would eventually kill himself … well isn’t that how all “villains” end? Dead.

But Cal Hockley is a perfect example of a character that is not a simple archetype. Now that he devolves as he sees things he wants slipping from him as his manhood is challenged by some street artist and the very people he believes should have had his back are cheering on the “imp” is more about development than archetype. The writers certainly could have let Cal gracefully step aside, they could have had him ungracefully step aside and demand Rose reimburse him for all the expenses. But that he, in his way, fights for her makes him far less the villain then most archetype villains are. And that is good writing.
So how do we write those characters? How do you make a hero not seem like someone Walt Disney would be proud of or for that matter make the villain a fav of old Walt?

I think the answer is to not use stereotypes. As a writer you have this vision of your characters in your mind. You know everything about them from which side of the bed they sleep on to which shoe they put on first. They are not like anyone else’s characters, although they might be like real characters in your life. So why would you cheapen them by not writing their uniqueness, by not giving them those quirks and nuances?
A hero doesn’t have to show up in shining armor, he can show up in scuffed cowboy boots with dirt on his clothes and a scar on his cheek. And a villain doesn’t have to be out to destroy, murder or completely ruin anyone, they can simply be caught up in their own circumstances and in trying to save themselves they harm others. That movie “Ghost” (with Swayze) comes to mind.

A hero can have some bad habits even some really bad habits as long as you leave him at least a toe’s distance from crossing that line. And a villain well there is hardly any limits to what you do with the antagonist’s character. He can be a total psycho or someone you might date or both.
Archetypes are a starting point. Archetypes are those characters the reader knows but never remembers. He or she is described as “that guy” or “this woman” by someone when who has read the story and is giving a synopsis to someone.

Characters though, characters are the people readers fantasy about, who they seek out in real life. And a really good character will be in a readers mind every time they pick up a book. They will name their children or their pets after characters. When they recommend the story it will be because of the characters.
So when you are getting ready to write your story, remember your story IS the character’s story. They are your surrogates your representatives. They are your readers guides through the story and how deep or shallow you “create” them will be the depth at which you involve the reader in their part of the tale.

Don’t cheat either your reader or yourself by only sticking with the archetype. Be daring, be creative, be bold.
And as always READ ON!!