Hawking Up Hairballs

Monday, August 01, 2005

Sometimes They're Just Stereotypes, But Then...

Some say that God is in the details. Others say it's the Devil. Whatever the case, finding the telling details that reveal a character as unique and believable can be a real bitch. Some suggest observing people and perhaps even making notes on your observations. That can work, but I have found that all too often people appear to be stereotypes. But then again. Well, let me relate a recent incident that illustrates my what I'm saying.

I stopped in at a nearby Mexican restaurant to get some takeout. While I was waiting for my food, this guy came in. He was what you might call your typical redneck, a short guy in his fifties with a beer belly. He placed an order and sat down to wait for his takeout. This guy was apparently acquainted with young Hispanic behind the cash register and they started chatting. The redneck, who was smoking, told the guy behind the register that he was glad that the restaurant still had a smoking section. He went on to complain that there were a lot of restaurants that didn't permit smoking at all. He finally said, "I'd like to start me a restaurant for smokers. If you ain't smoking, you can't get in." See what I mean? If my food had arrived then, I would have left the restaurant thinking that people all too often just act from type. Of course, that's how stereotypes arise. People identify with certain groups and segments of society, leading them to adopt the habits and attitudes associated with those groups and segments.

However, things got interesting when the man's wife arrived. She too was in her fifties, but she wasn't anything like what I would have expected. She had on a man's short sleeve shirt, Bermuda shorts, sneakers, and white gym socks that she had pulled all the way up. Her gray hair was relatively short and brushed back on the sides. She carried herself in a very masculine manner. For example, she sat with her legs open, and when she wanted to get her husband's attention to say something to him, she slapped him on the arm with the back of her hand.

I was immediately intrigued, but why? It was the fact that the wife went against expectations, which raised a number of questions in my mind. The woman had to be a lesbian. For Christ's sake, it seemed that she was actually going for the butch lesbian look. Hence, I first wondered if she was really gay. If she was, did her husband know it? She was so butch that I couldn't see how he could miss it. Of course, the human ability to deny that which one doesn't want to see is awfully powerful, but there must have been people who intimated the obvious to the man. How would he have responded? Perhaps their marriage was one of convenience, or perhaps the wife was in denial. Perhaps she was a lesbian but refused to accept the fact. I could go on, but you get the picture.

By going against expectations like that, the writer can pull the reader in and reveal something about the characters involved. What makes it hard is that, when you are creating characters, the ones that spring to mind tend to be stereotypical. One way in which you can create a unique character is to go against type. A hard man can show tenderness, a weak one courage, etc., but you can't be mechanical about it. Those aspects of a character that go against type have to flow from the character's makeup and experiences, otherwise the character will seem cut-and-paste. That's what makes it difficult. As far as I'm concerned it's definitely the Devil who's in the details. While I'm sitting there doing the hard work, he's pricking me with the proverbial pitchfork, while God's lounging in his heaven somewhere, sipping a good port as a comely angel gives him a manicure.


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