Go beyond stereotypes

Do any of these sound familiar TV shows or films you’ve seen?

  • The cop whose marriage broke up because he could never switch off his work
  • The hooker who is only doing that kind of work because she’s a single mother
  • The young bully who turns out to be bullied or abused by his father

Probably they do, because they’ve become stereotypes. Stereotypes are based on facts–a lot of police officers’ marriage do break up, a lot of prostitutes do have a child to support, a lot of bullies were themselves bullied. But when we see only these aspects of these characters they feel predictable and not that interesting.

First let’s see how NOT to go beyond the stereotypes, and that’s to go for the exact opposite of what people expect. When you do that you just create new stereotypes: the grandmother who rides a Harley, the boxer who loves poetry, or possibly the earliest version of this, the sad clown.

A more effective method is to make sure you give the characters enough attributes to reveal them as individuals. These don’t have to be exposed through exposition, sometimes you can use the setting, or the character’s appearance, or who he or she hangs out with, to give clues.

For instance, maybe our cop’s marriage did break up because he brought his work home too much. Instead of being a broken man who now drinks too much (more stereotyping) maybe he’s looking for somebody new among the ranks of the female police officers. Or maybe he has a new girlfriend who loves being with a cop (maybe she is just that bit too interested…)

If you have problems doing this, take a minute to consider to consider the complexity of the people around you and use that for inspiration. 

Ask your characters for help

If you get stuck, who are you going to call? One good option is to ask your characters for help.

What I suggest is interviewing your characters. Each of them wants something (even if sometimes it’s just to be left alone). They want something in general, and they want something in the scene you are writing.

Let’s take an example: You’re writing a scene for a romantic comedy in which Brad and Jane meet on a blind date. You’ve written some good dialogue for their first awkward moments and you know that you don’t want them to get along too well at this first meeting, but you’re not sure exactly what to have happen in the body of the scene.

In this case some good questions to ask both of your characters would be:

  • what’s the best thing that could happen on this date?
  • what’s the worst thing that could happen?
  • what do you think the other person wants?
  • What do you find attractive and unattractive about them?

Those questions alone might well be enough to get you going. If he says the worst thing would be if she turns out to be clingy, but you don’t want her to actually be clingy (after all, we want them to get together at the end), what could happen in the scene that would give him that (wrong) impression? Maybe she’s afraid of spiders and there’s one crawling along the wall; she’s embarrassed by this phobia but whenever the bug crawls near to her she can’t help grabbing Brad’s arm and moving closer to him–to be farther away from the spider, which he can’t see.

Or maybe she says the worst thing would be to have him be one of those driven types who check their phones for new messages every thirty seconds. If we want Brad to do this even though that’s not his usual habit, we need to plant a reason for him to check his phone on this occassion, and make it something too embarrassing or personal for him to be willing to reveal to her since they just met.

This interview method works for bigger plot points, too. Ask your characters what they want, what they fear, what their secrets are and you’ll soon have enough raw material to get you back on track.

PS: If you don’t know their desires, fears, and secrets, spend some time fleshing out the characters, then return to the problem.

 

Week 2 of Jurgen Wolff’s Script Coach workshop at Raindance is all about creating memorable characters that make your script stand out. You can sign up here.

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About 

Jurgen Wolff is a writer whose credits include "Family Ties," "Benson," "Love Boat," "Relic Hunter," and the film, "The Real Howard Spitz," starring Kelsey Grammer. I also wrote two TV movies for the Olsen twins back when they were just millionaires instead of billionaires, and the mini-series, "Midnight Man," starring Rob Lowe. Jurgen has been a script doctor on numerous projects.

His books include, "Focus: the power of targeted thinking" (Pearson 2008), "Your Writing Coach" (Nicholas Brealey, 2007) and "Do Something Different" (Virgin Business Books, 2005). He has two more coming out in 2009, "Marketing for Entrepreneurs" and "Creativity Now" (both from Pearson). Previous books also include "Successful Scriptwriting," "Successful Sitcom Writing," and "Top Secrets: Screenwriting." My ebook Time Management for Writers, is available from my website, www.TimetoWrite.com.

Jurgen teachs writing workshops internationally, and divide my time between London and Southern California. He teaches Script Coach at Raindance