The origins of imaginary people: Stereotypes

If you’ve been following along, you know that I have a theme I’m happy with (generation power shifts), and a genre to put it in. Next up: characters.

I’ll let the theme guide me, so I’m going to need some generations if I want to show the power struggle between the outgoing and incoming powers. The expectation is that we are going to get an evil old guy and a dashing young hero.

Booooring. That story has been told. How can we spice it up a bit?

How to subvert.

Let’s start with the 50,000 foot view. What are our options for good vs. bad?

Option 1: Young (good) vs Old (bad). Boring. Hard pass.

Option 2: So, what if the villain isn’t the old guy? It’s always the idealistic young hero vs old corruption. Flipping the picture would be something different, at least.

To be honest, that’s not a story I want to tell. The young generation is always demonized, usually well before they have any actual power to cut their own path in the world. I don’t want to give that platform a voice.

Option 3: What if… there are no bad guys? Most stories have a clear cut good vs evil, but what I’ve noticed is that I feel most excited when the writer takes the time to make the bad guy more realistic.

Of those, the third one makes me sit up a little more straight. It makes me wonder. It’s the Lex Luthor who has been lied to by Smallville Clark until he has no choice but to turn against him. It’s the Ozymandias who is willing to become the ultimate bad guy if it means saving the Watchmen world.

These villains linger long after their stories are told, because they’ve resonated with a part of me that, sometimes, I wish I didn’t have. But they are parts that we all have.

Jealousy. Curiosity. Sometimes, like with Ozy, it comes down to Rule 303: if you have the ability, you have the responsibility. Ozy had the ability to save the world. From his point of view, he would have been truly evil if he hadn’t tried to murder a ton of people.

So, it pays off to look at our character concepts early. If we’re saying “Oh, he’s the bad guy because he’s [stereotype]” then yeah, change it. That’s an opportunity to make our stories so much better.

It’s a way to protect our stories, too. A hundred years ago that stereotype was a person of color. A woman. A nationality. Now it’s really difficult to get through what might otherwise be a fun little story because the author leaned too heavily on “what we all know”.

Well, times changed. “Those people” didn’t deserve the labels that were put on them, and that audience is irrelevant. Our stories will age far better if we base our characters on a foundation of humanity, and not one of assumptions.

What do you think?