I’ve been doing the first revision pass on my WIP, and I’ve been thinking about my characters that are nonwhite. The main secondary character in my WIP is Southeast Asian Indian. He’s a cab driver. I made him a cab driver because all the best cabbies I’ve driven with have been from India. Of course, some of the best computer programmers I’ve met have been Indian, too, but even just writing that down makes me wonder: Have I stereotyped my character? Am I thinking in stereotypes?
According to story consultant Michael Hauge, the storyteller’s job is to create images. Your readers want to picture who is doing what. To succeed at that, all the elements of your story need to be clear and vivid. And, with luck, unique. Not stereotypes.
One thing we talked about in the McDaniel program was avoiding generalities in characterization. If character details are too broad, they might not trigger a specific image, or they might not reveal enough to elicit an emotional response.
Jenny always said, use just a couple of words. Don’t define these folks only by their function—boss, mother, dentist, customer—because they’re hard to picture and hard to invest in. Summaries don’t work, either. Remember “show, don’t tell”? Don’t state a character’s personality, conflict, need, or desire without providing evidence to back it up (something you show the reader). Let readers see that your character is “vindictive” or “a local hero” and don’t assume they’ll believe a description like that just because you said so.
And yet, specificity still isn’t enough. Consider this: “Mary, a petite, red-haired debutante, grabbed her coat.” What’s wrong with that? The details create an image, but the details don’t matter to the story and they reveal nothing about the character.
You want to show two or three clear, succinct, vivid details that 1) paint a picture in the minds of your readers and 2) convey the essence of that character. You’re going for an external something and an internal something for your character.
For example, one way to be specific and creative with characterization is with clothing, even though that seems like a hopelessly clichéd idea. Still, what a person wears reveals more about her personality than her height, build, and age. Imagine that a movie star at the height of her fame went to the Academy Awards and wore a skirt by Valentino and a T-shirt from the Gap. What does that say about this person? (That’s what Sharon Stone did.)
I’m reminded that I don’t have to say or describe a lot to reveal something significant about my Indian—and other—characters. If the characterization is unique to that person, I’ll avoid (I hope) stereotypes. Now, back to those revisions.