Just for fun, -- it is summer in my part of the world,-- I thought we could all try a writing exercise today. The exercise is intended to give depth to our characters and it's easy because we get to use stereotypes. Yes, stereotypes, cliches, caricature. No need to pull your hair out over Meyers-Briggs tests or Enneagram charts, just plain old stereotypes, where good guys wear white hats and bad guys never get the girl.
So, to start, lets pick a profession for our romantic hero -- something like firefighter, cop, cowboy, doctor, or bush pilot. Then we assign characteristics to these men, traits like noble, dedicated, protective, hard-working, self-sacrificing, loyal. You can make as long a list as you like.
Now, we need a heroine. I know modern romances often feature women in non-traditional jobs like body-guard or secret agent, but for the purposes of this exercise we'll go with the cliche. She can be a nurse, a homemaker, a teacher, or a librarian. She would exhibit characteristics like nurturing, gentle, compassionate, cheerful, friendly. See how easy this is?
Every good story needs a villain. For this exercise lets pick on the real baddies -- a gangster, an ex-girlfriend, a sleazy lawyer (sorry all your attorneys out there)or a nasty mother-in-law. Our villain might be ruthless, stubborn, sneaky, egotistical, and unreliable.
So, our story is a predictable tale of a noble cowboy, hard-working, protective, salt of the earth, who falls in love with the cheerful town librarian. She sees how hard his life is and wants to devote herself to helping him through the hardships of bad weather, lost cattle and an overwhelming mortgage. Enter the sleazy lawyer who sees a chance to make a quick buck if he can get his hands on the cowboy's ranch.
Now, in the hands of a really clever writer, this story could be worth telling, but it would require great skill on the part of the author to keep the reader's attention. It's all just so predictable. But watch what happens if we turn the stereotypes on their heads.
Our hero is the town librarian, dedicated, hard-working, determined to keep the small-town library open no matter what the cost to himself. Books are important -- too important to be left in the hands of bureaucrats who will do anything for the bottom line.
The cowboy is really a cowgirl who inherited the ranch but she hates ranch life. All that hard-work and small reward? Not for her. She is ruthless in her determination to sell the land to a developer, take her mega-bucks and blow town.
The lawyer is new to town, happy to be out of the big-city rat race. Hanging out a shingle on main street, making friends with the townsfolk, writing their wills, handling property transactions, suit her just fine. She'd far rather be helpful than rich.
Now our story is about the noble librarian who risks his job to fight the sale of the ranch. Deep in the town archives he has discovered that the ranch lies on top of an aquafer. The area should be protected from development but the document proving its status has been lost. Unfortunately for him, the cowgirl and the developer have powerful friends. If the sale goes ahead, there will be a healthy endowment for the library. If not, he and the town can say good-bye to their books. When the battle goes public the caring, cheerful lawyer comes to his aid, not only winning his case, but winning his heart.
Sorry, my story-line is a bit lame, but the characters have more depth than in the stereotype example. We don't expect a man to be a librarian, we don't expect the lawyer to be cheerful and nurturing and we're really disappointed that a cowgirl doesn't love her ranch. In this scenerio, our skilled author has many more possibilities to work with and many more opportunities to surprise the reader and keep him/her turning the pages.
So, here's my challenge to you. Name a profession and one stereotype characteristic for it. Then give it the opposite. e.g.
Play the game and I'll put your name in a draw for a calendar set from the Butchart Gardens.
Alice is indebted to Mary Buckham and Laurie Schnebly for the terrific workshops that sparked the idea for this blog.
For more about me, visit my website, http://www.alicevaldal.com/ where I post an update every month.