Playing Against Type
I am a fan of old movies. By “old”, I mean from 1930-1965. I like some modern movies to, like the Jason Bourne movies, but the old movies are the ones I visit again and again.
One thing I picked up quickly was that until the 1960’s, leading men and women almost always played good guys and gals, and the actors who played villians popped up in that role in movie after movie. So it is fun to find movies where a handsome leading man is the villain and an actor noted for his villainous roles gets to save the day.
Alfred Hitchcock was superb at casting actors against type. He had Robert Walker, who usually played friendly, boy-next-door types, play a psycho who proposes to a stranger that they swap murders in Strangers on a Train. Anthony Perkins play the title role in Psycho so convincingly that people never really saw him as anything other than Norman Bates after that. That stereotype is all the more unusual when you look at his career before Pyscho. He usually played sweet or intense, sometime tortured, lead and supporting characters.
So when I am developing characters, I sometimes want to play with stereotypes. Physical differences, such as scars or crippled limbs, can serve as a sign that a character is evil. Think Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. So I like to use those physical differences for my good characters.
Stereotypes change all the time with the culture, so take a look at what are currently popular types. The mean head cheerleader has been done to death. How could you spin it to make it fresh? My main character is built like a dumb jock but has a razor-sharp mind. One stereotype I find in a lot of YA books is the deserving, poor kid who somehow ends up attending a private school filled with mean rich kids. What if the poor kid isn’t so deserving? What if the poor kid is meaner and more manipulative than all the rich kids?
Don’t settle for stereotypes. Exercise your imagination and see how far you can turn the stereotype on his or her head.