Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Breaking types

In writing and in life we humans have a tendency to put things into types.  I'm no expert, but I wonder if this doesn't have something to do with learning when we're little?  We see a picture of a dog, we learn it's a dog, and thereafter we see all things that look like dogs and put them in the "dog" type.  Same goes with a lot of things, I'd imagine.

And then there are the more dangerous "types."  Actors get typecast a lot.  (So I've heard.  I wouldn't know.  I've never been an actress.)

Last night on ABC's show Castle, we got to see the writers break apart types even further.  I love this show.  And I'll tell you why, beside the fact that Nathan Fillion could not be more dashingly charming.  It's because Castle isn't a type.  Sure you might think he is if you only see a handful of scenes.  In the opening scene of the entire series he's at the massive launch party for his latest book.  (I think.  It's been a while.)  He's acting out the eligible bachelor playboy type very well.

Then, as time goes by in the series, and even in the first episode, you start to see a different side of him.  He's a dad, too.  And not just that, he's a really good dad.  My favorite line from last night's episode came from the detective Castle shadows.  She commented on how Castle acts like a 12 year old so much of the time that it's "refreshing" to see him be a dad.  He's a responsible parent.  But he also respects his daughter, who in turn respects him and doesn't really get into a lot of trouble.  See, she's not a type either.

Another great example of breaking type comes from a poem by James Tate titled Goodtime Jesus.

Goodtime Jesus

Jesus got up one day a little later than usual.  he had been dream-
ing so deep there was nothing left in his head.  what was it?
A nightmare, dead bodies walking all around him, eyes rolled
back, skin falling off.  But he wasn't afraid of that.  It was a beau-
tiful day.  How 'bout some coffee?  Don't mind if I do.  Take a little
ride on my donkey.  I love that donkey.  Hell, I love everybody.

So, it's a little irreverant.  But it breaks type.  You see the character not as He is depicted in the Bible, or even how most Christian religions try to depict the one they call Redeemer.  You see Him as a little boy who's just going about his normal life.  Tate makes Him more human.  And breaks from the type that we usually associate with this figure.

We can do this same thing in our writings.  In fact, for our primary and even some secondary characters, it's essential.  When I was planning out Oracles Promise, a character came into being that essentially consists of two types--the bookish scholar and the damaged recluse.  Maybe damaged isn't the right word.  But she does have a fairly tragic event in her past that left her both physically and emotionally scarred.  So there are types.  How did I break them?  The one came to being from the other.  Sure there were natural bookish tendencies to begin with but after this tragic event, they became her solace.  Maybe I'm still working within types, but I'm mixing them up, incorporating multiples to give deeper layers to my character.

And remember, "ogres are like onions" meaning "they have layers."  And not just ogres, but people and our characters.

How do you break types in your writings?  Is it something you struggle with?  Are you offended by the poem I put in here?  (It's ok.  I kinda was the first time I read it, but it really fit with what I was talking about.)


  1. This is definitely something I struggle with. I am working on it, though. I find this especially true with the 'bad guys'.

  2. Great post, Stephanie... lots of food for thought. I tend to "typecast" characters too but it's the different layers - sometimes the most surprising layers - that add depth to a character. (I love Shrek!)

  3. I think this is easier to fall into with secondary characters because we get a bit lazy with them sometimes. It helps me to develop the characters backstory--like you said, their layers, why they are the way they are, so that they don't just end up as flat stereotypical talking heads.

  4. What a profound thought on this Tuesday morning, Stephanie!

    As a writer, you can redefine anything. That's a great part of being a fiction writer. You can make stuff up! :D

  5. I am struggling with this right now too. Very timely post, Stephanie... now I just need to figure out HOW to make them have layers... :)

  6. The onion is an excellent visual. If you think of every character, or person, beginning as a seed and each layer as a year, each year contains experiences that shape a personality...

    The poem is a good example of looking outside of the box or of looking at a different side of the box? :)

  7. Oh, those darn layers! Still trying to figure out how to show them in my writing. I guess I can watch "Castle" guilt-free and call it research, right?

  8. Susan, it's so easy to fall into types for antagonists. Good luck!

    Julie, thanks! Totally true. (And Shrek is awesome! But only the first one.)

    Roni, definitely so true. It's harder with the secondaries because you don't want to spend too much time on them.

    Windy, thanks! So true.

    L.T., that's the true struggle of writing--coming up with those extra little bits that bring your characters off the page.

    Deb, great visual! And I'd say yes on both counts to your question.

    Jaime, absolutely! It's all research, all the time.

  9. Nice post! I'm really getting into my WIP now, and I have to constantly remind myself to do this with my characters.

  10. some of my characters are fresh and others are types. It's just easy to fall into that writing sometimes...especially when I'm tired or up against a deadline. I always have to go back and revise the type-ness out of them.

    In my new WIP I have a character that seems to be a type,but part of the story is learning about those onion layers you mentioned. I hope it works as intended...we will see!

  11. Thanks, Melane. Good luck on your new WiP!

    Tess, very true. It's that stock bookshelf we reach to blindly while we write that we have to break the habit of. Best of luck with your new WiP.


All content copyright of the author. Please ask permission before re-printing.

Fair use quotations and links do no require prior consent of the author.