As is usual for matters of appearance, this post applies mainly to girl characters. The hairstyles of boys are far less commonly attached to their personalities, desires and psychological weaknesses.
Some authors, such as Daniel Handler, avoid mentioning how a girl looks in books. We didn’t know what Violet looked like until Netflix adapted A Series Of Unfortunate Events for screen. (We only knew that Violet had long hair because she does something with the bow on it.)
The distinction between ‘inborn’ and ‘styling choices’ of a character is important:
Anyone who has read a book is likely familiar with this phenomenon. Characters’ hair, for example, is often written as a remarkably accurate reflection of their personalities: feisty heroines are endowed with hair as sassy as they are, and these ‘wild manes’ subsequently spend every scene ‘struggling to escape’ from hair ties, messy buns, or other oppressive hairstyles. Granted, a green mohawk may imply a certain individuality of temperament, but self-styling can at least be controlled—this is very different to insinuating that because a person is born with curly hair, they’re automatically incapable of keeping their temper. Worse still is when this descends into racial stereotyping.
Children’s literature is at the vanguard of change; ‘children are the future’ and all that. For children, ‘popular’ means something different.
A NEW DEFINITION OF POPULAR
My daughter is a Sims fan. As I ambled past the PC she announced that she’d discovered how to become popular on Sims 3. Since she’s a little too young to be playing Sims without occasional parental input, I ask, “What does that mean?”
“Well, it means you get to do things like change the names of shops and you can fire people and stuff like that.”
For more on what popular means in the Sims world, it’s all on their Wiki:
Sims with the Popularity Aspiration desire flocks of friends and killer parties, so if they aren’t on the phone, practicing politics, or dancin’ the night away, they probably should be. Their Aspiration Meters will fill with every friend, fair-weather or not, and allow them to live long and famous lives.
“Hmm,” I say. “Sounds like popular people are not nice people.” (See what I did there?)
“Yeah,” she agreed.
Before walking off, I asked my nine-year-old to tell me what she thinks ‘popular’ means. She thought for a moment and gave me a great, denotative definition: “Lots of people know you.” Given the state of politics right now, and who has been elected to make big decisions, I’d say this definition is the better one.
I mean in contrast with the Google definition: ‘liked or admired by many people or by a particular person or group.’ Young people know — partly through the stories we tell them, I’m sure — that ‘popular’ has nothing to do with being liked or admired. The warm connotations of nice and good and admired have been lost, and the dictionaries are yet to catch up.
In children’s stories, the opposite message is by far more common: Popular people are horrible. Again and again, the popular kids are depicted as:
unaware of their privilege
These attributes are in line with the Mean Girls definition of popularity.
THE FUNCTION OF POPULAR KIDS IN A CHARACTER WEB
In the character web of a high school story, the popular group are most often pitted against the geeky group. It is rare to get a story from the point of view of someone inside the popular group, though in the case of Mean Girls we do have someone coming in briefly from the outside, soon to leave. Most stories with popular cliques are commenting on them from the outside. However, we do have very popular (haha) series about cliques of popular girls, most notably the Gossip Girl series and Pretty Little Liars. Even the titles (gossip and liars) clue readers in on how we should feel about these characters. They are great for fiction however, as they are interesting.
‘Feeling like an outsider’ is so common in coming-of-age stories, it can probably be considered a universal emotion of adolescence. The existence of the popular group serves another good function, apart from one of pure opposition — the very existence of a Popular Group makes all of us feel like we will never really fit in, because of who we inherently are.
The morals of the popular group are frowned upon, which also offers opportunity to everyone else to evaluate where their own morals are.
Fictional popular kids are therefore stock characters — to be feared, yes, but also to be laughed at.
(In real life, the genuinely popular kids have completely different attributes. They are friendly, easy to get along with, co-operative and socially mature for their age.)
How is your country generally depicted in fiction, by writers outside your country? New Zealand in fiction, not surprisingly, is the stock country for ‘a place really, really far away.’
Now, I am not generally given over to excitement, but Neutral Milk Hotel sort of changed my life. They released this absolutely fantastic album called In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in 1998 and haven’t been heard from since, purportedly because their lead singer lives in a cave in New Zealand.
– from Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
In the English light-hearted drama Last Tango In Halifax, a relative who came from New Zealand to England had made a REALLY big effort to be at a wedding celebration, and therefore his very presence was amazing.
In Louise Rennison’s Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging (or Perfect Snogging, depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on), the main character’s father is sent away to New Zealand to work, which is a plot device to keep him really far away.
New Zealand sometimes even gets a mention in American fiction. Even in Breaking Bad! In this case, New Zealand is the stock country that ‘no one knows anything about’ and is the perfect place for Americans to go if they want a new start. Forget that in order for an American to enter New Zealand with intent to live you actually need a visa. (Works both ways!)
Jane Margolis: Do you know what this is? [refers to a bag full of money] Jesse Pinkman: It’s a whole lot of cheddar. Jane Margolis: This is freedom. This is saying, “I can go anywhere I want. I can be anybody.” What do you want to be? Where do you want to go? South America? Europe? Australia? Jesse Pinkman: Is New Zealand part of Australia? Jane Margolis: New Zealand is New Zealand. Jesse Pinkman: Right on. New Zealand. That’s where they made “Lord of the Rings”. I say we just move there, yo. I mean, you can do your art. Right? Like, you can paint the local castles and shit. And I can be a bush pilot.
– from Breaking Bad, penultimate episode of season 2
Sometimes, though, ‘distance’ equals ‘stupidity’ or ‘naivety’. Which makes me wonder what Americans think New Zealand teens do with their time. Because New Zealanders are watching the same shows, listening to the same music, wearing the same fashions, more or less. I’m pretty sure Kiwis know more about American culture than the other way around.
Here’s an article from a European whose version of New Zealand — from books introduced by his Kiwi girlfriend– turned out to be quite different from the New Zealand he met when he eventually visited the country.
Story is about archetypes and tropes. Avoid stereotypes.
WHAT IS A STEREOTYPE?
The archetypal story unearths a universally human experience, then wraps itself inside a unique, culture-specific expression. A stereotypical story reverses this pattern: It suffers a poverty of both content and form. It confines itself to the narrow, culture-specific experience and dresses in stale, non-specific generalities. […] Stereotypical stories stay at home, archetypal stories travel.
– Story, Robert McKee
COMEDY TRICK MAKING USE OF STEREOTYPES
Like many comic writers, Jeff Kinney, author of the Wimpy Kid books, makes use of our stereotypes by giving us just a few details then leaving us to fill in the rest. There’s no getting around it — a lot of comic writers rely on stereotypical views of their audience.
Greg’s older brother Rodrick is set up as a fool. Like lots of stereotypes we hold about dimwits, he can’t spell and is a member of a rock band. Of course, being unable to spell and having an interest in rock music has zero correlation to overall intelligence. But we find this combination of traits funny because it reinforces everything we believe (sort of) about someone who can’t spell ‘loaded diaper’, or who thinks they’re going to become famous via their garage band. Every now and then, however, Rodrick does something amazing. His strokes of genius defy our expectations (based on stereotype) and are ironically funny for that reason.
WHAT IS A TROPE?
A trope is a pattern which can be seen time and again in various stories. The site TV Tropes is a good place to start for many, many examples of tropes (not just seen on TV). However, the ‘tropes’ on that site get a little too specific. Some of the most specific examples can’t really be considered tropes at all, except to the most discriminating of story consumers. In order to work, the trope has to be recognised by the audience.
When I first encountered the TV Tropes website I was overcome with a sense of There’s Nothing New I Can Possibly Add To The World of Storytelling. I’ve since calmed down a bit and realised that’s not true at all. Nor should we be afraid of using tropes in our own stories. In fact, if you try to avoid tropes, you’ll probably end up with something no one can connect to.
There are, however, tropes I avoid like the plague. Sexist and racist character tropes are to be avoided.
WHAT IS AN ARCHETYPE?
Archetypes are fundamental psychological patterns within a person. They are roles a person may play in society, essential ways of interacting with others.
Archetype is a five-dollar word for ‘pattern’, or for the mythic original on which a pattern is based. It’s like this: somewhere back in myth, something — a story, let’s call it — comes into being. It works so well, for one reason or another, that it catches on, hangs around, and keeps popping up in subsequent stories. That component could be anything: a quest, a form of sacrifice, flight, a plunge into water, whatever resonates and catches our imaginations, setting off vibrations deep in our collective consciousness, calling to us, alarming us, inspiring us to dream or nightmare, making us want to hear it again and again. You’d think that these components, these archetypes, would wear out with use the way cliche wears out, but they actually work the other way: they take on power with repetition, finding strength in numbers. … When we hear or see or read one of these instances of archetype, we feel a little frisson of recognition and utter a little satisfied ‘aha!’. And we get that chance with fair frequency, because writers keep employing them.
— Thomas C. Foster, How To Read Literature Like A Professor
Because they are basic to all human beings, archetypes cross cultural boundaries and have universal appeal.
The idea of an archetype comes from Jung’s psychoanalytical writings. Jung wrote about our heads, but the Canadian critic Northrop Frye took these ideas and applied them to books.
Unless you give the archetype detail, it can become a stereotype (or a cliche). A stereotype is a character who behaves in exactly the way he or she is supposed to, according to the prevailing conventions.
Always make the archetype specific and individual to your unique character.
Don’t bother looking for the originals upon which modern archetypes are based — there has probably never been a single, definite version of the archetypes.
Robert McKee says:
Characters are not people. Whereas people constantly change and are difficult to pin down, characters in stories stand for things about human nature that are unchangeable through the ages.