Writing advice

Beware the Cookie-cutter Character

The other day I was wasting time on the internet (which is exceedingly easy to do) when I came across a video that made a lasting impression on me. The subject matter is not important, but suffice it to say that the woman involved truly believed something that is patently false. False, as in a minute’s worth of research on Google would prove it, false.

Okay. So there are some people out there who are ignorant. There are others who are not intellectually gifted. Well, duh. Everyone knows that. Why did it make such a big impression on me?

Because, depending on one’s environment, we may not run across people like this very often. If we don’t, it’s hard to put them in our fiction. I personally have this problem and have to consciously fight it as I write and edit my fiction.

The natural instinct of us human beings as we create stories and the like is create characters based on our own experiences and milieu. It’s what we do as children. We imagine we are pirates, or musketeers, or princesses, whatever. We don’t imagine other people as the pirates, except as minor characters. We don’t imagine that the bad guy will not be impressed with our daring-do. We certainly don’t imagine our fellow pirates might not agree with our plans.

As I said, it’s only natural.

Unfortunately when we begin to use this same method to write fiction, we run into a very real problem: cookie-cutter characters. I am no exception. I have to consciously fight my instinctual urge to create these cookie-cutter characters.

What do I mean by cookie-cutter characters? These are not the two-dimensional characters so many articles warn us about. A cookie-cutter character can be very well-rounded. A cookie-cutter character is one who shares the same diction and world-view with another character despite differing backgrounds.

For example. I am a white, middle class American with a college education. I am fairly good at expressing myself and familiar with world history and current events. If I am not careful (and this is something I’ve only become aware of within the last ten years, or so) all my characters will sound like white, middle-class Americans with a college education, even if some of them are, say inner city people of color, high school dropouts, or immigrants from another country.

The video I watched reminded me of this because my initial reaction was to think “she can’t really believe this, can she?” The answer is “yes, she can.” While it could be argued that most people aren’t factually ignorant or mentally challenged, there are plenty of people who are and plenty of people who simply don’t care enough about the subject to spend their energy there. Everyone does not think like I do. Everyone does not speak or view the world as I do.

This needs to be reflected in my writing.

Why? Because it makes the work of fiction more realistic and more interesting. Say your main characters are policy analysts for the United States State Department having dinner at a local restaurant. The odds say their waitress probably cannot offer a nuanced opinion on American policy towards Syria. Sure, she could be working her way through graduate school, but it’s more likely that she’s a high school graduate with two small children at home and spends all her time and energy supporting and raising her family. If they asked her opinion (which they probably wouldn’t) her answer would reflect that background.

If she answered at all.

Okay, so we now agree that we need to include a realistic variety of characters with a variety of backgrounds and diction and vocabulary patterns that match their backgrounds. So how do we do that? This is where our handy writer’s notebook comes in. We need to actively listen to the people around us of different backgrounds. How does the unemployed high school dropout describe his frequent run-ins with the police? How does the banker describe his run-in with the SEC? They are very similar situations, but I’d bet the two men (or women) would use very differing terms in their description.

So use your notebook. Take notes about how various people talk, how they hold themselves, and their attitudes. Often it only takes a few words of casual conversation to determine these things. Start a collection. Create a database to consult as you’re working.

Constantly check your work as you write and edit. Does your ditch digger (I know, they don’t exist anymore, but you know what I mean) speak like a professor of comparative literature? Does your cardiac surgeon talk like a fry cook? If so, you might have cookie-cutter characters.
And I will continue to work to keep them out of my own work.

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