I’m into the sixth week of studying a writing MOOC (massive open on-line course) You might think that since I do write and write so much that it’s a puzzle why I should want to join a course called ‘Start writing fiction’. I just felt my writing has become a little stale, and I need to think again, back to basics, what and how writing works and get away from what and how I write. So far it has been really interesting, and I’ve certainly had to look at some of the ways I do things – however because it’s a course for people just beginning, there are some aspects which, without being superior, I can and already do – such as observation. There’s an emphasis on keeping a journal, which doesn’t work for me, although I have now got an app on my phone where I can make notes, add photos etc.
Last week, having looked at characters we looked at stereotypes. This has been a little hobbyhorse of mine (one of many – I have a whole stable of hobbyhorses which I let out and canter round on!) With the writing groups I lead I have really tried to get them to look at real people, so not all old ladies are fluffy old dears called Ethel, not all young working-class men are thugs called Kevin, not all married women have perfect nails and hair ad are obsessed about home decor.
This is what the course says about stereotypes:
Stereotypes can be helpful when we start thinking about creating characters. But developing characters, giving them unexpected contradictions and conflicts, helps to create characters that are living people, not just types or caricatures.
But what about minor characters? How deeply do peripheral characters have to be imagined? Do all characters have to be rounded?
An article by the writer Josip Novakovich, discusses ’round’ and ‘flat’ characters – round because they are three-dimensional, complex characters with ‘conflicting traits’. He talks about lazy writing, bigoted writing – I might not put it as strongly to my group, but it’s very true. Creating ‘real’ characters is about observation, imagination, creativity
In the next section of the course are suggestions how a character might be made more three-dimensional, believable and interesting – however it’s a tricky thing to pull off. In the discussion some people took a stereotypical character and just added in a wacky or zany side to them – to me that was no more believable than the original stereotype. Having Ethel the fluffy old lady being a secret sky-diver doesn’t make her believable, nor does having Kevin the young man being secretly obsessed by Japanese flower arranging bring him to life.
… oh and another thing, stereotypical names… that’s something which really irritates me! If the old lady was born in the 1930’s, here are some suggestions for a name for her, the top ten names from the birth registers of the time:
… and if you want a few unusual ones,
… and what about Kevin? If he’s about twenty, then maybe:
… and unusual ones –