You see a lot of types in New York City.
In my neighborhood are hipsters with Victorian beards and tattoos, looking detached. Near my office your see look-alike fashion students with pop-eyed doll faces, frosted lipstick and hair bleached white. Rounding the corner is a paunchy guy near sixty who’s emulating a Western outlaw, striding by in black boots, black duster and black gambler hat like he’s on his way to a shootout. (Probably he’s on his way to a Neil Gaiman bookstore signing.)
Even the more mundane types fall into categories. There are skinny, fortyish Ivy League moms with sunglasses pushed up, having urgent conversations on cell phones and steering British-made strollers. There are suits hoping they look creative because they’re not wearing a tie. There are off-duty pole dancers looking demur, their profession not quite hidden in their gym bags. There are waiters waiting for their break on Broadway. There are smarty chicks sporting in-your-face glasses. There are immigrant taxi drivers in tee shirts jabbering in a hundred languages and driving like they’re still in Karachi, Kinshasa or Dhaka.
When others look at me what do they see, I wonder? Look at him…white guy, slim, salt-n-pepper hair, almost getting away with skinny jeans, a backpack and a young wife. Votes Democratic and thinks he’s one of “the people” even though his kids go to private schools, he has a platinum credit card and gets upgraded on United. Does something minor in the movie business, maybe, like make documentaries or production accounting. Yeah, that guy. Thinks he’s cool. Maybe he is.
We’re all types. And we’re not. In fiction it’s possible to sketch type with a few details and also to go against type. Neither is wrong, both can be good. There’s a time for each. Stereotyping is shallow, generally speaking, but there’s also a third way to look at character typing. It’s an opportunity to deepen your protagonist.
Here are some questions to show you what I mean:
- How does your protagonist view people? Into what categories are they sorted? What’s good, bad and characteristic of each category? Whom does your protagonist meet who does not fit neatly into any slot in that scheme?
- What does your protagonist know is universally true about people…and when in the story is it not?
- As the story opens, in what way is your protagonist doing exactly what he or she is supposed to be doing, according to background, family, education or class? Why is that comforting, comfortable and good?
- Work until the story forces your protagonist to be, think and/or feel like someone who is different. Then work backwards to set it up: Early on have your protagonist see and judge a person who is different—and whom your protagonist will later grow to understand.
In a great many manuscripts the protagonist does not have an evident world view. The plot problems that arrive may set that character in motion but do not always rock his or her world. Not really. A powerful story causes a protagonist to examine himself or herself, and the reader likewise. But that can’t happen until there is a cemented self to jackhammer apart. Establishing protagonists’ view of others—that is, the way in which they stereotype—is one way to set up coming changes to their selves.
There are other ways to shake up and deepen characters, of course, but playing with people and perceptions is fun. Novelists who do so are confident. They are in control of their art. They’re writers I like. Call them my type.
How does your protagonist type others…and how are you shaking him or her out of that?