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Are stereotypical roles of a character at times right?

Speaking as an amateur writer, how exactly do I broaden characters beyond their roles? Or if an archetype is better off staying the way they are?

For example, antagonists who are bullies.

A typical D-average jock who would start fights with anyone who looked at him funny, being disrespectful to people who he thought were below him. The "alpha male," who may or may not have a sad "backstory" to explain why he's the way he is.

Another example is a girly-girl type character who is mean, popular, "adventurous" to guys, a brat, a bit vain, has her own cliques, etc.

Reading characters like that makes anyone understandably say it's "cliche" or "not original." Myself included.

But don't stereotypes speak the truth at times? I mean, in my own experience, I have met people like that who are exactly the stereotype and far more cruel. I understand the importance of not making characters one-dimensional, like spicing things up so the jock is actually a genius or the mean girl is only mean to people she knows who are bad but they act all innocent so she does come across as quite a b-word.

But should it be alright to write characters' roles as their roles sometimes? And it's just up to the writer to do it the right way or have good writing?

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  • You do realize that the character who ostentatiously avoids doing anything "stereotypical" is also a stereotype?
    – Boba Fit
    Nov 30, 2022 at 19:50

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Stereotypes exist because they reduce the effort (thought) required to make a judgment -- but this becomes the case because they describe an often-real condition. There's no way to know if that skinny kid with glasses has those features because of his high IQ, or if he got the IQ by growing up physically inadequate and predisposed to read by his myopia -- but none the less, kids like that existed when I was in school fifty-plus years ago (I was one) and they still exist.

And that's the thing with stereotypes-- they exist because they're shorthand for the real world.

That said, use of stereotypes is usually seen as lazy writing, unless there's a good backstory explaining why this character lives the stereotype while most others don't. Alternately, there can be development that explains why the stereotype is merely a false appearance (like that kid with the glasses and "genius" IQ isn't really that smart, he just has an eidetic memory, and he's skinny and weak because his vision is so bad he's never taken to sports).

In my (limited) experience, it's easier to write non-stereotyped, well rounded characters than it is to explain why the stereotype isn't just laziness, so the genuinely lazy writer (and isn't that all of us, in the end?) will just do it right the first time.

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It depends on the 'role' that character plays in the story.

moral purity

The Wicked Witch of the West in the original book is a pure antagonist, that's her role in Dorothy's story. She's still an entertaining character written with some winking humor, but her role is the ultra-bad, an irredeemable despot, a fearsome tyrant. She cannot be sympathetic because (spoiler) 6 year old Dorothy kills her, completely by accident, and this shouldn't be morally complicated for the intended audience.

In the book, each chapter is structured to be an episodic bedtime story with the adventurers arriving at a new location, discovering some conflict and 'solving' it, each with a unique climax and denouement, also switching out which team member saves the day. The chapter where everyone is prisoner at the Witch's castle is 'solved' by Dorothy, but it's not a pivotal character moment or anything.

The Witch was bad and oops she died, but we don't feel the least bit sorry.

protagonist's POV

The 1939 film goes a step further, turning the Witch into a caricature of Dorothy's real-life antagonist Almira Gulch (not in the book). This exaggerated incarnation is the meanest mean-person that Dorothy can imagine. In Dorothy's naive fantasy, everyone is afraid of this witch-woman because 'everyone' is an extension of Dorothy. Adults can assume that Almira has multi-dimensionality the Witch lacks, but again it's Dorothy's POV, and Almira has threatened to take Toto away.

In the film, Dorothy emerges from her fantasy having learned a parable about using her brains, and being brave while remaining good-hearted, and also that people will forgive you for lying if you fess up –– these are skills that Dorothy might take to Almira's 'castle' and apologize for Toto chasing her chickens, but the core Oz story is a fantasy adventure not a morality play. (Kids wouldn't like that ending, and fantasy Dorothy 'solved' the conflict by throwing a bucket of water which would not improve the situation with Almira.) The nuance is interesting, but Dorothy would become an unreliable narrator, a fabulist who needs to learn a moral lesson. Dorothy isn't that character, so we never resolve the situation with Almira and Toto.

analogy and deconstruction

In the 1975 musical The Wiz, Oz becomes a metaphor for the inner city and various forms of institutional Black oppression. The Witch is framed as a 'local boss' exploiter, her castle is a sweatshop. This satirical version of the Witch is gleefully petty and proud of her power-imbalance, while mimicking the music of an upstanding lady spreading 'positivity'.

The mixed-message is for adults in the audience. The music is styled as hand-clapping foot-stomping charismatic Black church gospel, while the lyrics betray how horrible she is as a person. The scene entertains on multiple levels, to multiple age groups. Kids see a villain, adults can find a level of ironic social criticism.

(Not) Better with character depth?

This same Witch character has been re-imagined as an un-popUlar college student in the book and play Wicked. I believe other characters were similarly re-vamped as college students. I don't know the story, but it fits with the last few decades of 'rehabilitating' classic villains with an anachronistic origin. The story has nothing to do with the original book, and is a modern 'outsider' parody of the cultural archetypes they represent.

The character was again re-origin-ated in a 2013 film as a wronged Mila Kunis who turns green because James Franco cheats on her. Having seen this film, the addition of a boyfriend-centered evil-origin felt like a weird mischaracterization and pointless 'just so' story. (Like, couldn't she just have been born evil...? Her sister is evil..., so maybe it's a family trait...? No, it was because of a guy she literally just met. The sister was born evil, though... because a moron wrote this script.)

A backstory is lore, not characterization

I understand the importance of not making characters one-dimensional, like spicing things up so the jock is actually a genius or the mean girl is only mean to people she knows who are bad but they act all innocent so she does come across as quite a b-word.

But should it be alright to write characters' roles as their roles sometimes? And it's just up to the writer to do it the right way or have good writing?

I think there are instances where showing the bully as insecure, and the mean girl as secretly underprivileged, has their place in certain types of stories. Stands to reason this 'dichotomy' might hit every character archetype in the story: wise dad just faking it, hero not always so noble.

I think it's good writing but maybe not the only way to add some character dimensionality.

I've shown there's different ways for a character to have 'depth' without undermining their role.

  1. The OG Witch is purely bad, just as Dorothy is purely good. These characters are both flat, flat, flat... but there is a balance between them. Ironically every other character in Oz is some sort of dichotomy (cowardly lion, humbug wizard, et al) but only Dorothy and the Witch are so polarized – sort of an immutable object meets irresistible force situation. They are at a stalemate until Dorothy does something random, not realizing it was the Witch's vulnerability.

  2. the MGM Witch is an exaggerated persona who gets her comeuppance. Margaret Hamilton used the character to teach kids about acting and how characters tell stories. The character is designed as a kind of stooge for the kids to hate. It is a melodrama villain, but she stands out in a sea of saccharine. Again, consider the audience (and cultural impact).

  3. Since The Wiz musical number is our only scene with the villain, it condenses her entire 'reign' into a spectacle of fawning subjects while she threatens them in an upbeat song. She is satirically evil, the nuance is in her styling and music which suggests real-world analogies which are more ambiguous/narcissistic.

The 'role' the character is playing might be balanced by another character, their polarity being the interesting dynamic when they ultimately come together.

Or the 'role' might be to manipulate emotions, to set up a payoff, or to present a fallacy. They might be a potential 'dark path' example facing the protagonist, or because there is so much plot going on this character's motives really need to be clear and to the point.

I personally think we have culturally 'redeemed' too far. Darth Vader is now the protagonist, and we see real-life villains redeemed in the media and swiftly returned to their seats of power and influence.

I don't need to see villains 'redeemed' or 'explained' to be entertained – the story should handle that really. In a good story the badguy has a purpose and a culture/value system and a motivation that makes sense (not just a psychological trauma). I like villains who know they are villains, and just enjoy it because they're good at it. It's campy, but can save an otherwise average plot.

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It depends on the story and the roll of the character. If you need a dumb jock to make a one and done jerk comment to the protagonist character, you probably don't need much depth to him. But a Jock who is a poor student would have reason to lash out. Most high schools require student athletes to meet a certain C average or they would be dropped from the Team. If he's trying his hardest, and he's still making a D average, that frustration is going to come out in some kind of emotional outburst. And saying he has a D Average is not saying he's "dumb" either. It could be he has a learning disability or a home situation that makes studying difficult. In many education systems in the United States, the schools are set up to treat education as a one size fits all when just about every teacher who is remotely good at their job will tell you that it doesn't work like that (Many systems are a "Teach to the Test" flaw, where standardized testing is used by high level decision makers in a school system to determine the schools ability to educate and thus the overall performance on those tests determines the schools funding, so the teachers bosses will force teachers to teach the kids how to pass the test... which incentivizes teaching students who are great test takers and not to teach students who were lousy test takers. Sorry, child of a teacher IRL.).

As is oft said, stereotypes exist for a reason... what's rarely acknowledged are why those reasons exist.

Moving a way from high school stereotypes, stereotypes regarding cultures or peoples are can also be done well to explore the culture and people behind it. Many stereotypes of many cultures are rooted in deep cultural traditions and social norms and customs of that society. In the U.S. for example, it's not uncommon for waiters and waitresses at restaurants loath foreign nationals being seated in their section because of the stereotype that they are poor tippers. But tipping is different in America than in other parts of the world, where it's not seen as rude to not tip and it's only done if the service was above and beyond and in other cultures it's considered down right rude to tip (in Japan, giving a waiter a tip is understood to be an insult, the implication being that the waiter needs the extra money because they are so bad at their job, they will soon be fired and need the help getting through it.).

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