Tuesday, January 21, 2003

We went out to a pancake house for breakfast yesterday morning. As we ate, I saw a middle-aged couple get up from their booth to leave.

She was tall, with a piled-up hairdo making her look even taller. She wore dark pink lipstick and a puffy knee-length winter coat. There was something sparkly nested in her coif.

He wore blue jeans too small for *me* to ever squeeze into, and a turquoise Western shirt with pearl snaps on the pockets. He walked stiffly on bow-legs, as though he'd ridden too many broncs. His tummy pushed out on the Western shirt. He had combed several long hairs from over his left ear to his right ear to cover his bald head. He had metal-rimmed glasses and a leathery sun-burnt face. His gait was a macho-man's roll, one I've seen on numberless older cowboys. And he was packing heat: at his hip bobbed a heavy retractable tape measure. The label said "30'," clearly legibile from twenty feet away.

I described the couple, then the tape measure, to my husband. "It's all about measuring," I told him.

Tall wife, short man with a tape measure. If I'd put those two in a story, that detail would be criticized for being too obvious. But so often we do put out clear signals about ourselves.

Thin, horizontally-striped sweater, a size too small, and corduroy pants; add a thin leather choker and pillow-mashed hair and you've got an Indie kid.

Blue jeans too long in the leg, a black Final Conflict tee shirt stretched across a drum-sized belly; greasy hair long overdue for a trim, black-rimmed glasses taped together with a band-aid (r) at the bridge, and orange-stained fingers: if this guy doesn't live in his mother's basement with six computers and a Tomb Raider poster, I'll eat my hat.

I could go on for days with stereotypes like these from all walks of life: the Mexican motel maid's junk-heap of a car; the politician's injection-molded hairdo and professionally manicured fingernails and smile; the Chad refugee's tall, skeletal thinness in thrift shop double-knit pants and a tan-and-brown windbreaker in 10 degree weather...

The question for a writer is when to use these images to lend truth to a scene--because all stereotypes are born in the truth no matter how distorted by evil they become later--and when to turn one upside-down or inside-out to create a surprise, an insight, on the page.

A stereotype can be used, legitimately I think, to establish that recognition in a reader: I know this Indie kid! And at the same time to engender trust: this writer knows the scene. Trust is very important, particularly when you intend to do something later that's outlandish, because it may help your reader keep believing, so he or she won't throw the book away when they get to the outlandish part.

A stereotype is even more useful to a writer when it's used counter-intuitively. The poor Chad refugee who turns out to be a war criminal on the lam, cleverly and coldly disguising himself as a Lost Boy, one of his own victims. This character would not only earn my enmity as a reader, it downright gives me chills.

I've seen this suggestion for writers often: Keep a notebook of character sketches, and jot down actual people you see. I think I'll start doing that.

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