April 29 – May 5: “How does a writer go about avoiding stereotyped characters? Is it possible to go to the other extreme?”

This week we answer the questions: “How does a writer go about avoiding stereotyped characters? Is it possible to go to the other extreme?” Join ITW Members Jean Harrington, Barry Lyga, Thomas M. Malafarina, Amy Lignor and  Jonathan Maberry for this can’t-miss discussion.


Jean Harrington is the author of the Naples-set Murders by Design Mystery Series. A former English prof at Becker College in Worcester, Mass., Jean is writing for the exploding field of electronic publishing and is awed by its impact on readers and writers alike. For excerpts from DESIGNED FOR DEATH, THE MONET MURDERS, and KILLER KITCHENS, the first three books in her tongue-in-cheek series, Jean invites you to visit her at www.jeanharrington.com

As the daughter of a career librarian Amy Lignor grew up loving books; ‘Patience & Fortitude’ at the NYPL were her heroes. Beginning with Amy’s first book of historical romance, her career flourished when her YA series THE ANGEL CHRONICLES arrived on the scene. She began developing the storyline for this new seven-book series which moved her into the world of action, adventure and romantic suspense. Working as an editor in the publishing industry for decades, Amy is now the Owner/Operator of The Write Companion, as well as a contributor to various literary publications and websites.

Called a “YA rebel-author” by Kirkus Reviews, Barry Lyga has published eleven novels in various genres in his seven-year career, including his latest, the I HUNT KILLERS series. His books have been or are slated to be published in twelve different languages in North America, Australia, Europe, and Asia. He lives in New York City, with a comic book collection that is just too damn big.

Jonathan Maberry is a NY Times bestselling author, multiple Bram Stoker Award winner, and freelancer for Marvel Comics. His novels include EXTINCTION MACHINE, FIRE & ASH, PATIENT ZERO and many others. His award-winning teen novel, ROT & RUIN, is now in development for film. He is the editor of V-WARS, an award-winning vampire anthology. Since 1978 he’s sold more than 1200 magazine feature articles, 3000 columns, plays, greeting cards, song lyrics, and poetry.

Thomas M. Malafarina is an author of horror fiction from Berks County, Pennsylvania. He has published four horror novels 99 SOULS, BURN PHONE, EYE CONTACT and FALLEN STONES as well as for collections of horror short stories; 13 NASTY ENDINGS , GALLLERY OF HORROR, MALAFARINA MALEFICARUM Vol. 1, MALAFARINA MALEFICARUM Vol. 2 and most recently GHOST SHADOWS. He has also published a book of often strange single panel cartoons called YES I SMELLED IT TOO; CARTOONS FOR THE SLIGHTLY OFF CENTER.

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  1. How does a writer go about avoiding stereotyped characters? Is it possible to go to the other extreme?

    The problem with stereotypes is their lack of surprises. Or mystery. Or unexpected humor. You know what to expect the instant you encounter a stereotype, so why read on? There will be no delightful revelation waiting on the next page or the next: The hooker has a heart of gold. The rookie copy is naïve. The schoolyard bully is a sadist.
    How does a writer avoid falling into these common snares? One way is through the use of the unexpected. In the Murders by Design series, for example, I strive for character anomalies that will stir a pleased response in the reader. Deva Dunne, my amateur sleuth, is an interior designer. A purveyor of all things beautiful, she’s also a crack shot. Can shoot the finial off a lamp in the twinkling of an eye.
    In the first book in the series, Designed for Death, we meet professional law man, homicide detective Lt. Rossi who could hold his own in the NYPD. To fool suspects into believing he’s a simple small town cop, he wears Hawaiian shirts during his interrogations, the gaudier the better.
    In The Monet Murders, the gorgeous trophy wife in the too tight clothes has the mind of a corporate CEO.
    And in the latest release, Killer Kitchens, a tough guy with questionable business friends is a closet connoisseur of Federalist antiques.
    Unexpected qualities in a fictional person—whether good or bad—rounds him out, makes him come alive. The danger here may be in overreaching for that unique quality, going to the extreme in an attempt to avoid the stereotypical and falling into caricature. And in a way, caricature is another form of stereotyping in that it parades all the well known features of an easily recognized personality type and exaggerates them until the character’s individuality is lost.
    Perhaps the old adage “moderation in all things” applies here. You want a character who is neither boring nor bizarre. You want him close enough to the norm to be recognizable and sympathetic, but with enough quirks to be memorable. And surprising.

  2. If a character is based on a combination of several real life acquaintances of the author, chances are that they will seem more real and less contrived than one simply concocted from thin air. I find if my characters starting to appear too cartoony, or too folksy or too anything but real, then I know I’m dangerously close to slipping into the realm of stereotypes and it’s time for a rewrite. That being said, some real, living, breathing people are in reality walking stereotypes so sometimes basing a character on real people does not guarantee you won’t end up with a clichéd character. There is also the risk of consciously forcing yourself to make a character not stereotypical in any way, which can sometimes result in a very boring character indeed. As with everything in life the key is finding the middle ground and creating a character that accomplishes what you want him or her to accomplish in the story without been too unrealistic or trite.

  3. Stereotypes become a bit boring for me; I think it helps if an author literally thinks about a character as they form that personal relationship with them ahead of time; quirks, oddities – everything that encompasses that individual. Some of the most memorable characters in literature for me are the exact opposite of what the reader was expecting. Noting two specifics: Odd Thomas (Dean Koontz) is a twist. Considering the horrific situations he finds himself in, he’s more on the humorous side than the paranormal. And although you would think him to be in his 60’s – a college professor, considering the way he speaks and the abundant knowledge he has – it’s beyond odd that he’s a young man. Where investigators are concerned, Aloysius Pendergast (Preston & Child), being that he is an FBI agent, is a hoot and a howl. His extreme New Orleans ways, his love of fine everything, and his intense need to understand the human mind is awesome. Plus, a reader wouldn’t get the impression of him being tall, thin, albino, and dressing like an undertaker. He is described as physically powerful and, when it comes to the Deep South, you would assume a vibrant wardrobe, tan skin, etc. Both of these characters are charmers, and it is because they go against the grain. Can an author go too far? Absolutely. But, to me, that’s the risk you take in order to be unique. A vampire is a vampire; a cop is a cop – but it’s the author’s responsibility to make them interesting to the audience.

  4. I think the easiest way to avoid stereotypes is simply to remember two things: First, we are all sovereign individuals. Staple it to your forehead (printed backwards, natch) so that you see it every time you look in the mirror, if you have to, but remember that: We are all sovereign individuals. We all have our experiences, memories, hang-ups, turn-ons, and personality quirks. Even the people you see walking around every day, apparently living their lives according to some kind of How to Be a Stereotype for Dummies tome have a secret life inside to which you are not privy.

    You know who else has a secret life? You do. That’s the second part of the equation: We all have things in common, no matter how different we seem. We share the same basic neurochemistry, after all. So when you write, no matter WHO you are writing, you just need to tap into that pool of commonality we all share, and you will find that it’s easier to avoid stereotypes…because you stop seeing people as “others” and start seeing them as, again, individuals. Individuals with hopes, dreams, aspirations, kinks, fears, and more.

    Can you go too far? Sure, I guess. A college professor of mine once pointed out that the percentage of women judges on LAW & ORDER was ridiculously out of proportion to anything resembling reality. Our cultural stereotype tells us that judges tend to be men…and at this point in time, that’s still true most of the time. (It’s gotten better since I took that class, but women are still underrepresented on the bench.)

    But…so what? LAW & ORDER is fiction, as are the books we’re writing, so if there’s a few too many women in robes for “reality’s sake,” who cares? As long as we don’t stumble our way into cartoonish surreality or exaggerate to the point of absurdity (ONLY women are judges!), we’re fine.

    The trouble with “going too far” comes when you step over an invisible and very real line that makes the reader roll his or her eyes. Where that line is changes depending on the character and the context, but when you step over it…well, hopefully your editor or beta readers will let you know before a reader gets the chance!

  5. In reading the comments from my fellow authors, I see a common thread. While we all strive for characters with individuality, we also try to avoid extreme behavior. We want quirks in our people, just enough, usually, to set them apart from the horde but not enough to make them bizarre. Unless that’s our objective; otherwise, moderation is king.

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