Skip Navigation

Top Menu

Home Archives About

Blog Post

"Realistic" Characters: Individuals or Stereotypes?

"A popular teenage boy wouldn't play Pokemon. Isn't that a game for little kids?"

"A man wouldn't think that way. Sex and competition are always at the forefront of a man's mind."

"A young woman today wouldn't know Cheers. That's before her time."

As novelists, we see our characters as individuals. We spend years (or at least months) with them, developing their histories and personalities. We give them unique worldviews, unique tastes and hobbies, unique voices. We treat them like real people with real minds.

Or do we?

The three quotes above (slightly modified from their originals) came from the fingertips of fellow writers. These writers would agree wholeheartedly, I'm sure, that stereotypes are shallow. They've probably complained more than once of cardboard cut-out characters. They've called for more originality, more individuality, more fleshed-out protagonists who feel real.

And yet, at the first whiff of individuality—the first toe over the line of an established stereotype—they say, "Person X of Demographic Y wouldn't think or act that way." The unspoken assumption: "All people of Demographic Y think and act exactly the same."

Characters are Ideals

As I wrote last November, people don't expect a protagonist to act like a real person. They expect him or her to act like a Reasonable Person, an ideal. Not a perfect ideal, but an abstract one—a representation of how a decent member of society should act under the circumstances.

Example: A little girl of 5 or 6 is wandering lost and alone in a crowded mall. Most real people will ignore her. They'll tell themselves they don't have the time, someone else will take care of her, the girl's mother could be just around the corner and would scream "pedophile!" etc. In social experiments with this exact setup, 40 to 60 minutes have passed before a single passerby among hundreds stopped to help.

But if your heroine ignores a lost little girl, readers will get very angry. That's not the way a woman is supposed to behave, even if that's the way most real women do (including, logically, the readers themselves).

Even in lesser matters, if your protagonist doesn't conform to the stereotype he or she is "supposed" to fit based on age, sex, ethnicity, etc., your fellow writers and readers will complain.

Example: Your heroine is twenty-something years old and mentions that she loved the Borrowers books as a girl.

Your fellow writers' reaction: This is unrealistic because the Borrowers series ended in the early 1980s, and therefore nobody growing up in the 1990s would have read them. Kids in the 1990s only read series that were written in the 1990s, like The Baby-sitters Club and Goosebumps, because all the books from previous decades vanished into thin air the moment they fell out of vogue. Duh.

The same rule applies to music, movies, etc.—people are only "supposed" to know the media that was current and popular in "their time." She's a teenager in 2014 and her favorite band is Heart? Wrong. Her favorite actor is Matt Damon? Also wrong. You're clearly out of touch with today's young people, because every single teenage girl on the planet listens to One Direction and swoons for Taylor Lautner.

Characters are "Me"

It can be difficult for people to accept, or even fully grasp, that others live and think differently than they do. I have been sternly informed that the cycle of poverty doesn't exist, and that unemployed people are simply lazy. I have also been sternly informed that nobody would ever say that the cycle of poverty doesn't exist or that unemployed people are simply lazy.

When people read books, they project themselves and their experiences onto the page. If a character is the same age and/or sex as the readers, the readers don't see that character as a unique individual. They see "me." E.g., when a YA reader comments derisively that "a sixteen-year-old girl wouldn't listen to Heart," what she means is, "I don't listen to Heart, so none of the other twenty million teens in America would either."

If the readers are in a different demographic than the character, they'll instead use people they know as a reference. E.g., the critic might not be a teenager, but her niece is. Her niece has never heard of Heart or Matt Damon. Therefore, the tastes of your teenage heroine are unrealistic.

And if the readers don't know anybody in that demographic personally, they'll fall back on stereotypes they've learned from other media, whether those stereotypes defy common sense or not. E.g., they don't actually know any immigrants from Asia, but Asian characters in movies and TV shows speak in clipped, broken English. Your Asian immigrant has a slight accent, but otherwise she speaks like an American. Unrealistic. If someone has an accent, she must also have terrible grammar and a tiny vocabulary.

So what can you do about it?

Nothing, really.

A reader's definition of "realistic" depends on his or her perception of "reality." Nobody's reality is exactly the same as someone else's reality. So you will never be able to create a work of fiction that's consistent with anyone's reality but your own.

Oh, you can try. You can smash your characters into tiny, rigid boxes. You can listen to the people who say it's unrealistic for Person X of Demographic Y to have any qualities or preferences outside the norm. You can turn your hero into every other writer's hero, hoping you can make everybody happy.

Or you can smile, say, "Thank you for your input," and forget about them. People will whip out their big bag o' stereotypes every time they open a book. It's unavoidable. If the back cover says a heroine is "forty-five" and "divorced," before the first sentence readers have already built her entire character and history in their heads, based on stereotypes and the middle-aged divorcees they've known and read about.

I've had people comment on the first page of a manuscript that the main character was unrealistic. The first page. They read just enough to learn names and hair colors, and "Um, I don't think a brunette named Sally would say that." Some beta readers suggested rewrites that turned the protagonists into completely different people before they'd even reached page two.

Writer A: "My book opens in a ritzy Manhattan office. The heroine is a quick-witted go-getter named Elizabeth...."

Writer B: "No, she's not. She's a sweet ingenue with a heart of gold. She grew up in Texas and goes by Lizzie."

Writer A: "But..."

Writer B (firmly): "Lizzie."

No matter how you bend and shape your characters to suit the "realism" standards of other people, you will never make everybody happy. All you'll do is make yourself very unhappy by compromising your ideas.

So unless your character is behaving truly OOC, and when you think about it he or she as an individual—not as a representative of Demographic Y—would not think or act the way you've written, I say stick to your guns. You're writing the characters in your head, not someone else's.


No comments

(Will not be shown)

What is the first letter of "Connecticut"?