Monthly Archives: August 2013

Characterisation – or when is a stereotype not a stereotype?

I haven’t (yet) given up on my online writers course and with a few modules under my belt, it is time to reflect upon my learning (that’s teacher speak by the way)

On a recent visit to London, I was forced to comment on the number of ‘trendy, young people’ who were wearing flat caps. Now I am guessing that this is some sort of fashion trend that hasn’t reached the North East – a iconic/ironic statement of some sort – I asked my friend, who is Lancashire born and bred but living in the big smoke, whether he had considered joining the trendy clones and I am sure that you can guess his response. A man from Lancashire does not wear a flat cap to be trendy – he does it to fit a stereotype.

This got me thinking about characterisation – my online course people say that you should avoid stereotypes at all cost. They make your characters appear one dimensional, unoriginal and generally boring – but isn’t a stereotype just a broad brush stroke of how a particular character should dress/act/speak – almost an expectation which if you ignore breaks the ‘magic’ you are trying to create?

A pirate for example has to conform to a particular set of ‘rules’ – you don’t have to tick all the boxes – she could be allergic to feathers (see I’ve instantly broken two pirate stereotypes there), but she must go ‘argghhhh’ a lot and be on a quest for treasure (buried or otherwise). If these elements are not present you are breaking the trust the reader is putting in you and jarring their expectations to the point they don’t believe your story. Even when they know its not real.

I am also forced to ask when does a stereotype actually become a statement of fact? I’ve visited London a handful of times, my stereotypical view of the tube journey to my friends flat was one of overcrowded trains, everyone ignoring everyone else as they cocoon themselves in their world of mobile phones, ipods and reading. Oh and there has to be a nutter shouting at everyone and no-one at the same time. In a strange way it was comforting to force myself (rucksack and all) onto the bursting tube, be ignored – regardless of how many times I fell over as the train lurched its was beneath the capital – and giggle uncontrollably at the bloke half a carriage away complaining about something or other to anyone who would listen – which of course no-one was. It was what I expected and although not the most pleasant experience I will ever have, it was strangely comforting.

So I guess what I am saying is that stereotypes have a place in fiction, they are what the population generally expect and ignoring them is akin to ignoring the law of gravity. So I intend to embrace stereotypes, although I will do so carefully to help me develop believable characters and believable plot lines.

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First few lessons complete

Okay, I have (officially) completed the first three units of the online course I signed up for last week. Here are my first thoughts. Please be aware that I am a professional teacher (stop laughing at the back!) so I have a lot of experience at keeping people engaged in their learning – even when they have paid and have some enthusiasm for it!

The course is relatively simple. Death by powerpoint (or an online equivalent) before a multiguess style ‘exam’ at the end of each module. Sorry that’s my inner professional teacher trying to burst through, but I am sure you get the drift – a lot of reading and then a 10 question multiple choice test.

Overall the standard of the course is fairly OK, although I would like some variation on the method of presentation, a little more fluidity in the course content AND NO spelling mistakes (of which I have seen several).

The first module was fine, but by the third I was getting a little tired of simply reading a few lines on a slide before going onto the next one. There is also an issue with the testing. The blurb states you have to get 70% to allow access to the next module – fair enough – but they only let you through if you score 8+/10, now I’m sure all you mathmagicians out there have worked out that this is actually 80%. These are probably only very minor issues, but this is something that I, and many others, have paid money for (even if it is only £12 – remember this was a 95% discount)

All this brings me nicely to the first major lesson from this course – as writers, the majority of us will expect people to pay for our work. Therefore we need to act like professionals. Whilst this has been a theme throughout the first few modules, it has been interesting to see (and perhaps I am a little cynical) that the course providers have not always heeded their own advice. The course is OK, but could be great – if it had a more professional feel to it.

Of course, for ‘indie’ writers, being seen as professional can be a problem. Until the big money starts rolling in many of our friends and family simple see this as a hobby – each sale contributing to a cup of tea, rather than the mortgage. But it doesn’t mean we have to bow to these opinions. From now on I am going to try and undertake my writing in a professional manner – same start time, same place (I am lucky enough to have a study), same working hours. Now I know that this will sometimes be a struggle – against myself not only against members of my family who want a piece of my time – but if I don’t start taking my writing seriously who will?

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Online course

I’m not sure that I haven’t just fallen for ‘magic beans’ but one of those ‘daily deal’ websites offered an online writing course (with a proper certificate and everything) for £12 – a saving of 95% (apparently)

Having spent more than this on a couple of author workshops – which to be honest didn’t offer the ‘support’ that the blurb promised – I decided to give this a go.

Naturally I will keep you informed of any words of wisdom that crop up. Do you have any experience of these sorts of courses? Do you have any ‘formal’ qualifications when it comes to your writing? Have I just wasted £12 and however many hours of my life it will take to complete this 12 module course?

I will let you know …..

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