Sunday, June 28, 2009

Going After Stereotypes With an Axe

Read a story about Backcountry Mail Service and it got me thinking about stereotypes and other elements of story-telling. At one point in the article someone remarks that just because they're living out where it's remote doesn't mean they don't want to be modern. (One of them gets Netflix, for example, even though it's 30 miles to the nearest town... and probably not all of that is over what would count as "road.") Yet that's one of the automatic assumptions lots of people make about life way out in the woods. That it's all backwards, rustic, oil lamps and firewood and outhouses, and that everyone needs to use an axe for just about anything.

(Actually, the axe is, I have heard, pretty indispensable.)

And while some of these places may not have indoor bathrooms (though in this day and age I doubt that - you can put an enclosed septic system in just about anywhere), that doesn't mean they aren't connected to the world at large. Satellite tv and internet has largely solved that problem - after all you can't get Netflix without a computer I don't think - and so the automatic assumption many make that backcountry equals backwards just doesn't fly.

I think the trick as a writer is to recognize when you're making those assumptions as a shortcut for developing character. I myself have written characters who live off in the back woods someplace, and yes, they are anti-social. This isn't always a stereotype, though, as I had a great uncle Jim who remarked in all earnestness that it was time to move the day he saw three cars go past his house. Not at a time, mind you, just all day. Three cars per day was too much for Uncle Jim. The important part is not to let your setting or other aspects become a too-easy shorthand for establishing your own character. If you don't do that, you've lost a dimension to your character that could have made him or her much more interesting.

Getting back to the news story, it's the little details that can help set things apart from the stereotype and make things more personal, more individual. The fact that the pilot needs a pillow to sit on, or that the other pilots purposefully overbid to make sure the guy who's done the job since the 70's got to keep the contract, are things that make the news article more vivid, more personal, these take the people (who are in this case real people, not characters) from a cookie-cutter image of what people who live out there must be like to a more nuance portrayal of who they really are.

And not one of them was mentioned as having a really big beard.

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