Thursday, April 15, 2010

Stock Characters by Elizabeth Spann Craig

You’d think that there wouldn’t be many stock characters books these days.  Publishing has gotten really competitive and the market is tight.  Books that make it onto the shelves have catchy titles, eye-catching covers, and great opening lines.

But still---stock characters cram books.

To me, these characters jump right out of the book at me when I’m writing.  But is this because I’m a writer?  I’ll immediately pick up on the dumb blonde, the precocious child, the girl next door, the jock, and the alcoholic cop.  Fortunately, they’re not all in one book.  Well…there was that one book….

There’s a comfort, though, for readers of immediately “getting” a character: “Oh! Okay, she’s the shy librarian who is actually beautiful if she takes off those thick glasses.  Got it!”  It’s almost a shortcut for the reader for getting acquainted with a character. And readers seem to really connect them.

But then, of course, you’ve got readers who get bored with this.  They’re looking for something fresh and new.

Some of these stock characters do ring true to a certain degree, just like some stereotypes do.  I’m sure there are some really free-spirit accountants out there who go sky-diving after leaving the office…I just haven’t met any of them.

What I like to try to do if I use a stock character, is adapt them for my purpose instead of being lazy and just writing the character at face value.  Maybe I want the readers to immediately identify with them at the start and get the warm fuzzies about the character…but then I’ll have them be my murderer at the end of the mystery.  Maybe I’ll have a character who seems like the girl next door, but she’s actually got a secret.

We can also take a character that’s fairly flat (which stereotypes are) and give them more dimensions.  Do they react to other characters in surprising ways?   Do they grow or change during the course of the story?  What can they do that shows they’re unique?

Turning stock characters on their heads can be a lot of fun.  Have you used any stereotypical characters or avoided them completely?  What have you done to put a fresh spin on them, if you’re using them, and keep them from being too predictable?

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams
Pretty is as Pretty Dies--Midnight Ink
Delicious and Suspicious--Berkley Prime Crime...July 2010


Laura S. said...

Great post, Elizabeth! I love memorable characters, so I'm always working especially hard on the characters of my stories. Thanks for the tips!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Thanks Laura! :)

Anonymous said...

I despise predictabilty with a passion. If I see a handful of stock characters early on in a book I shut it. Lost my attention.

I love diversity. I have a lot of characters. I have a core of six good guys and six bad guys, although half the characters are "just there" in the rooom with limited speaking roles.

A writer can us diversity such as male/female, different nationalities and religion. I use white, Hispanic, Asian, and Indian with Christian, Catholic, Hindu, and Buddhist backgrounds. They talk ifferent. Wear different clothes. Some are short and some are tall. Some are health food nuts and some junk food junkies. Some drink a lot of coffee. others dring tea. There is a range of very athletic to pudgy and clumsy. I even have one girl getting her pony tail cut and dying her blonde hair black. Keep them changing and evolving.

Its fun to give characters quirks and idiosyncrisies. Make them react differently to similar events and challenges. Then have them do something completely different simply because the reader will not expect it (but there has to be a good reason to do so). Anything but the status quo.

Stephen Tremp

T. Powell Coltrin said...

That is a great point "There’s a comfort, though, for readers of immediately “getting” a character:". Stock characters are comfortable and we may relate to them even if they are different. We know what to expect from them to a certain degree.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I think adding the twist surprise (in action or motive) is a great way to break out one of those stock characters.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Stephen--It's true that there are so many different types of characters out there for us to choose from or model our characters after. I think you bring up a good point...we don't need to bore our readers! So if we start out with someone who is a little "stock," we need to shake things up a little bit somehow.

Teresa--Sometimes I'm so bewildered when I open a book with a ton of characters that it's nice to see a familiar face in the group. :)

Diane--That's a great idea--give them some different motivations and make them unique.