We all know we shouldn’t use stereotypes for the hero or heroine in our novels.
Stereotypes are conventional and predictable and often boring, and it is therefore difficult to keep the reader’s interest with a stereotypical character. We use them for minor characters—the nerd for example. Stereotypes go hand in hand with tropes, which can best be described as the expected (or predictable) behavior of the stereotypical character. The nerd will probably wear glasses, have a dorky haircut, and be a wizard on computers. We all know that, and the readers expect it.
We tend to use archetypes for our primary characters, as defined by psychologist Carl Gustav Jung. Typical archetypes are the hero, the villain, the rebel, the healer, the mentor, etc.
We know they will portray and follow universal patterns of human behavior, which enables us to make them more realistic, because we understand what their motivations would be. The hero performs heroic acts and defeats the villain while the villain commits a crime or antagonizes the hero. Yet because they are archetypes, we have enough scope to make each hero or heroine different, even though they follow the same basic path.
But what if we took those expected behavior patterns and created characters that go against them?
I believe some of the most interesting stories are the ones in which the hero or heroine acts totally against the expected.
Think Walter White in Breaking Bad. He starts off as a mild-mannered middle-class white school teacher and ends up as a ruthless drug lord. Or Rachel Watson in the upcoming movie from the book The Girl on the Train, who is a drunk and a liar and who can’t come to terms with the fact that her ex-husband doesn’t want her anymore.
How about Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, and Clarice. Who is the hero in that story anyhow? And Forrest Gump is another non-hero archetype.
Let’s take Jung’s definition of the hero archetype, and try to create an anti-heroine:
Motto: Where there’s a will, there’s a way—Let’s make her insecure and unsure of herself.
Core desire: to prove one’s worth through courageous acts—She just wants to hide from the world and be safe. Even though she knows things that could help solve a murder, she would rather keep it to herself.
Goal: expert mastery in a way that improves the world—She has no ambition.
Greatest fear: weakness, vulnerability, being a “chicken.”—She doesn’t care if people see her weaknesses.
Strategy: to be as strong and competent as possible—To stay off the radar.
Weakness: arrogance, always needing another battle to fight—Self-degrading and lacks confidence.
Talent: competence and courage—incompetence and weakness. Give her a defect or an addiction to something that makes her unreliable.
Of course, something will happen to force her to change and do something heroic, but you’ll keep the readers guessing as to whether she actually will find the courage or self-confidence to do it.
It’s something I’ve been working on, but it’s difficult to go against the norm. Why don’t you give it a try?