It’s complicated: creating real characters

So Andrew and his husband Tristan are out from the city for a Sunday tour of boutique wineries and an organic produce market in their Prius – complete with its ‘meat is murder’, ‘Gun Free America’, ‘I’m with her’ stickers on the back. They are, naturally, keen supporters of the local Antifa and Andrew just joined Ravelry to show his support for any group that hates the man he calls ‘Drumph’ and racist homophobes who support him.

They have got a little lost and are on what their GPS said was a short cut – in the back-country. And Tristan, who is driving, chokes on an almond – which gets stuck in his throat.  As he is clutching at his neck (instead of the steering-wheel) their Prius veers off the road, and rolls.

The big Ford Dually behind them screeches to a halt, and a big white guy jumps out and runs to the Prius – where the batteries have short-circuited and started a fire. He hauls both the stunned Andrew and Tristan out of the vehicle, and, seeing as Tristan is still choking, opens his airway and clears the obstruction.  Then, because as the local volunteer fire-fighter, he has emergency response training, he does a quick assessment of both, applies a pressure bandage to the gash on Andrew’s arm, calls the emergency number on his mobile, and, seeing as he knows the responder, and they tell him the only Ambulance is 30 miles away responding to a cardiac call-out, and it is now sleeting, he puts them both into his truck. He contrives a towel roll to provide neck support for Andrew, and cuts an old beer carton into a splint for Tristan’s possible ankle fracture, and drives them to the nearest ER.

He’s a cattle-farmer, with a Trump ‘16 sticker on his vehicle and a rifle rack with a shotgun and one of those scary black rifles in it (he uses both for vermin and needs them on hand). He’s openly carrying, because he does.

Do Tristan and Andrew… punch him because he’s a ‘Nazi’?

Before we go any further into the writing aspect of this: I was conscripted to the Army at 17, and spent a couple of years as a medic. I’ve been involved in emergency response, and volunteer rescue of some sort ever since. These days I’m a part of our local volunteer ambulance service, and do about 12 shifts a month on call.   I’m no hero, but I actually have responded to quite a lot of emergency situations where people needed help. Most of the time they’ve been people that I – and my fellow first responders – didn’t know from Adam. Sometimes there’s been more than a small element of risk involved. We keep being told NOT to take those risks.

You know: not once in the 40 years or so I’ve been doing this… have any of the people I’ve had the privilege of serving with EVER even considered who or what kind of person they were trying to help was.  Even in the army, we gave priority to the worst injured. Not all of those were white or even on our side. That was our training, and I saw my fellow soldiers live and risk dying by that.  And yeah, I’ve never seen anyone pay a blind piece of notice, when people may need their help, to that ‘don’t take risks’ stuff. Humans can be bloody amazingly brave and compassionate to total strangers, in extremis. Even to strangers, whom, out of that circumstance, they’d really dislike.

And… I’ve served with all sorts too.  Yes, there are common characteristics, but the politics, religion, intelligence, interests – hell, diet, vary widely.  You’re very unlikely to find Ark B type people, or extremists – either Antifa or Neo-Nazi – but either the conservative cattle-farmer or the somewhat left-leaning ecologist is indeed perfectly possible. I know and happily work with both.

The trouble with modern identity politics, which has bled heavily into the writing world is that – like the Andrew and Tristan characters (written as an example of this)– it is really about stereotypes. It’s the modern racism (which is also stereotyping on the basis skin-color). The underlying assumption of both is that the stereotype (real. Imaginary, or somewhere between) group defines the individual ABSOLUTELY.  Not just one individual – ALL the individuals in that group.

Now of course all groups evolve stereotypes to describe them. It’s a kind of ‘shorthand’ humans use. Often there is a shred of reality in them – or perceptions of that reality. They’re not all bad, even.

And possibly somewhere in that group, the holotype exists.  The similarity of others in that ‘group’ to that may be close, or they might be widely divergent.

But nothing says: ‘crap writing’ more than the stereotype with no differentiating characteristics at all.

Oh. Wait. Something does. Strawman stereotyping, with no differentiating characteristics at all. Cardboard cut-out bad men, who, for example, outside of the imagination of a NYC publishing bubble, don’t exist, and never did.

Now of course, there are people who desperately want to believe those strawman stereotypes, or at least have others believe anyone they don’t like is ‘literally Hitler’.  But for huge numbers of readers… we — subconsciously at least — realize that isn’t ‘real’. The characters simply aren’t believable. Our suspension of disbelief is broken by it.  That’s why Trad publishing is bleeding itself to death.  Readers understand – usually from first-hand experience, that people are complicated, that groups (especially on superficial traits) do NOT absolutely define individuals.  That, for example, victims (the official saints of modern PC) are just people, some good, some bad, mostly betwixt. Just because you’re the victim of discrimination doesn’t necessarily that you don’t practice the same, or that some people in your group don’t do something society considers horrible or even annoying.

If you can include that humanity into your characters, that variation, those individual traits, you’re doing it right.





  1. I’ve met one person who made me think, ‘Aaaaaannnd that’s where those stereotypes came from.’ Really neat individual, subject matter expert, and happened to have all the mannerisms and speech patterns of a stereotype. But that’s one out of a lot of individuals, and this person may well have cultivated the stereotype as a sort of cover and defense.

    It would be fun to pattern a character off of them, but also difficult. I’m not sure I’ve got the chops to include enough little hints that the character is a lot more than he or she seems to be, enough so that readers won’t accuse me of bait-and-switch later in the story.

    1. But what a tempting technical problem! Now you’ve got me wanting to tackle it too.

    2. Apparently a regular occurrence from Computer Guy standpoint: People who aren’t nominally idiots (think those with engineering degrees, or doctors, or neurosurgeons) tend to end up with blown up PCs because they decide, off the cuff, they know BETTER than the Computer Guy Peon they hired to build the thing, and void the warranty by swapping out parts, failing to follow proper procedure, and then call up furious because the $14,000 machine LITERALLY EXPLODED and yelling “FIX THIS ON WARRANTY NOW.”* It’s apparently so common that it’s not just my housemate who’s related stories, it’s also other folks he knows that do system builds. One of them has a customer who is a regular, and a neurosurgeon, who is chalked up to techbane because the good doctor is forever tampering with the software and hardware, to make it better, following This Thing Seen On Youtube (me: did that doctor follow the Verge video of How To Build A PC?)

      *(The warranty explicitly says “Don’t open the case or change parts.”)

  2. excellent post dave. i was going to make an actual response, but you covered that point at the end, too.

  3. Even with the age old question of men writing women or women writing men it usually comes down to writing a person, an individual. There are writers who can’t do that, who march out the cardboard cut outs when they need someone in a military uniform, for example, and if that’s the case they simply shouldn’t do it.

  4. Real people aren’t stereotypes.

    Like the black teacher at a local Jr High who wears suits every day, loves guns, and made sure to cover the horrors of communism in his history class (and is a very strict teacher).

  5. I had a trick for developing a character, which I developed when having to write airman performance reports. The trick was (in writing that all-important first line) “What is the FIRST THING you think of, when you think about that person?” That quality or characteristic which springs first to mind … and there you go. Everything about that person springs from that one outstanding quality. Their enthusiasm for a particular hobby, their love for a spouse or child, a notable habit … because once that one thing is defined, the rest of that character flows from that.

  6. “Do Tristan and Andrew… punch him because he’s a ‘Nazi’?”

    Or more likely have the vapors because pistol and ASSAULT WEAPON!!!!! AIIIIEEEEEE!!!! ?

    No, because car crash and open wound plus fracture, realistically, cuts through the bullshit instantly.

    Realistically, in 6 months after the accident Tristan and Andrew have gradually changed their entire social circle because their previous friends were just a bit… vapid? And likely re-examined their dietary and other choices as well. Nearly dying because of being a f***ing idiot has a profound effect sometimes.

    This is where I find many authors falling down on the job. The character has a violent encounter with hospital time, and they then continue on as if nothing happened. Television is terrible for this, of course. How many times has the Enterprise nearly been destroyed, or the bridge crew mangled, and next episode we’re starting back at zero again? Hundreds.

    1. True. Mind you, some people are slow learners (not looking at you, Dave Freer, not looking at you. Perish the thought)

      1. Sometimes it takes DECADES for The Phantom to finally learn. I figure by the time I’m 90 I’ll have it mostly figured out. Probably mostly.

    2. Always wrestling with how the character can cope with trauma.

      Though in one book, I made it clear that characters got a healing potion specifically targeted at preventing PTSD.

    3. And they actually addressed that, or tried to; quick heal, protoplasers for nearly instant wound closures, etc.

      1. I do somewhat the same thing in my stories, I have nanotech ambulances that can grow nearly a whole new body on a human if you can get them in there before they die. The part that doesn’t go away is the memory of having been wounded.

        The robot girlfriends spend a lot of time talking the humans out of a funk after they have a big flashback. One of the things about heroism that I try to put in is the way your true hero will step back up to the plate after they get hurt.

        Its one thing to rush in all fat happy and stupid, not knowing what real pain is. Its another thing to go through the trauma, then get up off your hospital bed and go back, because you have to. That’s a hero.

      1. We certainly see that on Twitter and with certain Hugo-nominated fan-sites. In real life, away from the frantic need to virtue signal, I suspect things are a little different.

        Or I hope so, to be more truthful. It would suck if all those morons didn’t learn anything.

        1. The Need To Believe The Narrative is religious in approach, cult-fanatic in execution. It takes something lifeshattering to shake that kind of thing loose, and sometimes, not even then.

          But on the other hand, you have the #WalkAway movement. So not all is lost or hopeless, but there will be some who are just that much more zealot about the whole thing.

          1. Many of the higher-profile #WalkAways I’ve seen of late have been loyal Lefties who got mugged by their own side.

            Great example was Lindsay Sheppard at Wilfred Laurier University in Ontario, she was a regular Masters student with a TA job until the campus Left went after her. Put her through the whole Star Chamber treatment. Now she’s a Holy Martyr for the Free Speech Conservatives, and not inclined to pull her punches either.

            But before they mistreated her for not being Left Enough, she was a regular, inoffensive liberal girl, probably voted NDP and had a “Coexist” sticker on her SmartCar. Not anymore.

  7. It’s also fun to start with a stereotype and then break it badly.

    Happens in Real Life, too. One of my brothers-in-law is a welder, union man, foul mouthed, chain smoker . . . dotes on this yappy little hairless doggette that belongs in a goblin film, cooks her special food because her skin is delicate . . .

    1. One is reminded of Lawdog’s story of the man-mountain biker whose chihuahua Buster out fought cock-fighting roosters……..

  8. > Do Tristan and Andrew… punch him because he’s a ‘Nazi’?

    *After* accepting his help? Absolutely. On video, so they can share the moment with their friends, and also with their lawyer, as “proof” that they felt threatened by the deplorable who interfered with them instead of waiting for the State’s minions to tend to them. Why, *anything* might have happened! So they’re going to sue him for… well, that’s for the lawyer to figure out. Becuse you can’t just have people going around saving peoples’ lives, we have government employees to do that, with uniforms and credentials!

    Lest you think I was pulling your leg, that sort of thing was common in states that didn’t have “Good Samaritan” laws protecting individual citizens. My state finally enacted such a law after someone dragged a man from a burning car. Instead of being grateful for not being barbecued, he promptly sued his savior, claiming his back had been injured in the process.

    1. “So they’re going to sue him for… well, that’s for the lawyer to figure out. Because you can’t just have people going around saving peoples’ lives, we have government employees to do that, with uniforms and credentials!”

      I would file that one under “real world thing too ugly to be included in fiction” because every time I run across something like that it kicks me out of the book. Possibly could be used as a good back story reason for having Tristan and Andrew consumed by Cthulhu, but other than that I wouldn’t go there myself.

      Nice setup for them being barfed up again, even demons have standards.

    2. That incident with the old woman in China (who sued the young man who helped pull her out of a bus door for her injuries) so put off people from helping other people hurt that they watched a two year old girl be repeatedly run over.

      Apparently there’s been some changes and there are Good Samaritan laws in place. Also anyone stupid enough to sue the person trying to help will find it… unpleasant. For selfishly trying to destroy societal cohesion and goodwill or something like that.

Comments are closed.