4.25.2017

Class Innovation

An author’s search for distinctive characters is limited by her experience. The set includes people she’s known personally as well as mythic characters, like those in movies, with whom she identifies. Because many authors are introspective, they often want to reach beyond their boring friends for that archetypal maverick. Sort of like Katniss, goes the thinking.

If you stop to think for a second, though, what defines distinctive? A character that stands out from the crowd. But what crowd do the other characters move in? Maybe you’re writing about young techs in the city. That’s different from a mom trying to break free of the garden club set. Depending on the typical crowd, your chosen character could merely be plucked out of another crowd.

British TV writers know the Upstairs/Downstairs formula well. What better choice of a person to break the rules than someone who does not know the rules, or finds the rules stupid? The greater the contrast in class, the more dichotomy is created. Plus, you have instant tension: will the character bend the social mores to his liking, or will they corral him?

Such contrasts are hardly limited to aristocratic Europe. A young woman in Compton need commute only a half hour to land on an Orange County golf course. White trash outside Atlanta can travel a few highways and work in a white glove mansion. Given the vast disparities in wealth that occur in cities all over the U.S., you can tailor class clash to any region you choose.

People learn to get along. We all try to fit in. Whether that dynamic greases the skids to triumph or tragedy doesn’t matter. You’re no longer straining to make the hero exceptional. You’re pitting human strivings that you know very well against each other.

Exercise: If you reach for a stereotype, though, you might as well forget the endeavor altogether. All young women from X do not act like X. You wouldn’t write that way about your other characters. The character you choose has to be charismatic in her own right. How is she going to open the eyes of the rich set if all she does is steal their silverware?

“When red-headed people are above a certain social grade their hair is auburn.”
—Mark Twain

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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