By now, I’m sure you’ve at least heard about the film “Young Adult,” written by “Juno” creator, Diablo Cody. There seem to be two main streams of responses: Charlize Theron’s acting (wonderful) and the movie’s depiction of a YA author (all over the map). Some found the depiction totally off-base. Some found it hilariously accurate. Ally Carter, the author of “Gallagher Girls,” comments on a snapshot of Mavis in the airport: “That is pretty much what I look like RIGHT NOW. Minus the dog.” Well, I admit, as an aspiring MG/YA author, I am, as I write this blog, eating Chinese takeout and trying not to give in to my Toy Yorkie begging next to my pink puffy slippers. The details of Mavis Gary’s character (Charlize Theron) often make me point and say, “Yes! Ya got it, Diablo!” Yet, the MFA-workshop-trained voice inside my head is screaming: “Stereotype! Cliché! We don’t all own Hello Kitty Ts!”
But here’s the rub: Mavis Gary’s character works. In fact, her character works well. Her character is complex. Her character, I confess, is one of my favorite characters in film. Now, why?
In a screenwriting class I took last year, I realized something profound. The idea works for prose writing as well: it’s okay to start with a cliché. It’s okay to start flat. It leaves you room to build, to complicate, to individualize.
I know, I know. Every nerve in your body is screaming, “That’s insane. Clichés are blasphemous. Clichés are boring. Clichés will never get me published because everyone wants to read something new.”
Yes, I understand this reaction. But think about this: readers meet characters like people meet people. That is, when we first meet people, it is natural instinct to form ideas of how we might relate (or not relate) to them. What they might be like. If we should bother. How a relationship might develop. People generally mentally categorize strangers, if only to deal with the sheer number of them. Of course, if we stop at this stage of development, we will stay naive and most likely prejudiced. Part of becoming adult to learn to not take stock in initial impression. On the other side of the telescope, we as individuals want to learn the ways in which we are different from the crowd, the ways in which we are unique. We want to develop opinions. We want to become certain of beliefs. We want, in another word, to become complex, true characters.
The same goes for developing fictional characters. We as writers can introduce Joe Schmo to the readers in a certain light–as cliché as it may be–and spend the rest of the novel or film setting Joe up against the expectations the cliché has created. Then it will happen: an individual will emerge. Because, the more we get to know someone, or in this case, a character, the more we come to understand that, a generic-seeming person is probably not so generic once you get to know the individual. And this is one way to discover characters who are rich and worth exploring.
Writers: we are constantly faced with the task of creating unique but believable characters. This is so incredibly difficult. I know. But go easy on yourself. Meet your character. Feel free to judge him/her/it. Enjoy judging him/her/it. Then get to know the individual. Hang out. Find the parts that tick. Let be the parts that are plain (people can have those parts too!). I know you’re antsy to get on and develop your wonderful relationship of deep understanding with your character. But just remember, meet your characters like they are people, and even if you’re not sure what you’re trying to find in them, they just might surprise you, as people often do.