Avoiding the Stereotypical Characters

Help help!  I have three characters who are in danger of being stuck in stereotypes.  They need your creative talents to help them avoid being predictable and boring.  Here they are so far:

The main character’s name is Garnet.  She is a single mom, only 17, with a baby daughter, Alta.  Her parents both died in a random car accident (icy road), and she got pregnant in an uncharacteristically self-destructive act while grieving.  She now lives with her Uncle Lars (bachelor loner in his 50’s) out in the country on his dairy farm.  She works at a landscaping company, one of the gardeners working for rich people.  Her babysitter (Mrs. W.) is recently widowed, late 60’s, quite well off, but lost in her own grief.  She babysits to get out of her house and avoid everyone she knows who wants to talk about her past life. 

Any thoughts of how I can flesh out these characters?  Appearance?  Odd habits?  Speech patterns? (they live in the upper Midwest).  Secrets?  Dreams?

18 responses to “Avoiding the Stereotypical Characters

  1. Okay, take them one at a time. The trickiest one for me is Uncle Lars. What is a 5o-ish, bachelor dairy farmer like?

  2. I must take my lead from Garrison Keillor, Uncle Lars is a rotund, ruddy complected Norwegain Batchelor.lFarmer. He has worked the farm since he was able to walk. He finds no enchantment in his life, just good honest work. He respects his four Halflinger work horses, Gus, Shoney, Carl and Inga. Lars bathes on sunday mornings prior to church (Lutheran of course) and sometimes on Wednesday nights. He never goes to the doctor or dentist and has had the same pair of glasses for over 20 years.
    Lars has huge, gnarled hands that have been cracked by years of dirt and cold weather. His hair is corse and grey which grows in tuffs and patches all over his head. He has had a limp in his left leg since 1967 when he fell under the hay bailer and broke his knee cap.
    Lars if frugel with both his money and his words, and much prefers the company of his horses and his Austrailian Shepherd, Chance. to that of any human.
    One thing people don’t know about Lars is his ability to make stunninngly intricate, wooden music boxes. They are his passion beyond farming. Every year, at Christmas, Lars secretely gives music boxes to the very sick patients in the local hospital and to the elderly at the Green Valley Nursing home. Although many town people suspect Lars of being the secret “Music Man” Lars has never and will never tell.
    Lars was hesitant to take in Garnet and her baby, but being a good Lutheran, what was he to do? It was quite an adjustment for Lars as his usually somber and silent home suddenly vibrated with the sounds of the baby’s crys and giggles, as well as Garnet’s constant phone conversations.

    • Ooooo. I feel like a kid on Christmas. A dog! I hadn’t thought of that. Another character! And those music boxes. Great touch! Why is the dog’s name Chance? Hmmm. Love the horses’ names!

  3. Barbara (B.J.) Hill

    Alta is not Garnet’s baby. It is her younger sister, Ruby, who got pregnant. The baby was born, the parents killed, then they had to move to the uncle’s farm. Since Garnet had graduated from high school already, she wanted Ruby to have a second chance.

    Lars grew up in New York City. While attending college, he met and loved a woman who married someone else. After graduating from college, still broken-hearted over the loss of the woman he loved, Lars moved to the Upper Midwest to work with and eventually take over his father’s farm.

    Mrs. W. taught kindergarten in her younger days. She loved children and wanted to have a lot of them. She and her husband were unable to have any children and that make her bitter. She eventually looks upon Alta as her granddaughter and all bitterness is washed away.

    • I think I will keep Garnet as an only child (unless we stick Ruby into the fatal car crash. Hmmmm.). The unrequited love notion for Lars definitely has possibilities. This could be a very deep secret only known to Lars’ brother (Garnet’s father, now dead) which could come out later in the book, if needed.

      I’ve been pondering Mrs. W’s children or lack thereof. She definitely loved her husband and nursed him all through his Alzheimer’s. But kids? If she has some, where are they? Are they self-centered, annoying rich kids who think Mom is a bore or are they going to show up? If I try the childless route, it keeps things simpler. It also adds to her grief since now she is completely alone. Did I mention she is rich? She just doesn’t want to play Lady Bountiful, and hang out with the other rich widows. So she is “working for a living” and Garnet is too naive to realize she is paying Mrs. W. an amazingly low salary ($7/hr). Mrs. W. doens’t tell her, since she doesn’t need the money. She needs to work somewhere completely divorced from her previous life. She is escaping.

      Thanks, B.J.!

  4. Barbara Burris

    Garnet is tall and slender with rich short auburn hair and eyes the color of freshly cut limes. Her transparent skin is amply freckled. When she talks to you, she looks directly into your eyes, a habit her mother required of her from the time she could talk.

    “People won’t know you’re telling them the truth unless you face them square on,” she told Garnet.

    When Garnet finally told Uncle Lars about the pregnancy, he demanded that she face her responsibilities and take control of her life. She is grateful for his stalwart support and depends on his counsel, but she misses being a kid and hanging out with her girlfriends, something he doesn’t understand.

    Uncle Lars believes that land and animals are the only things that won’t let you down. Tall and slender, with a rigid posture reminiscent of his days in the service, Lars has gray blue eyes that could pierce metal. His fair skin is deeply weathered and he still has a full shock of sandy red blonde hair. He adores Garnet and feels great sadness and regret that his brother and sister-in-law didn’t get to know their granddaughter. His approach to handling the baby is the same one he uses with his lambs, his foals and his calves – practical, but not exactly cuddly. Alta seems innately determined to excavate the deeply buried softness that surrounds his soul. Lars’ deeply held secret, the one that will go with him to the grave. is that he is gay. His beloved partner, Michael, was killed in an explosion during the war. Having Garnet and Alta move in with Lars was a huge adjustment for him. He now worries about the day Garnet will decide to move out on her own.

    Alta is petite and fine boned with eyes the color of Dutched cocoa. She has dimpled cheeks and a cleft chin. Her curly brown hair makes her look like a little pixie when her mom ties it up in one plume that sprouts from the top of her head. Pixie is the name Lars bestowed on her the first time he saw her. She shrieks and laughs and runs to him on tiptoes calling “Papa, Papa!” when he comes in from the field. Alta is not a whiny child. When she falls, she gets back onto her feet and with a look of steely determination, launches herself in a new direction.

    Mrs. Witherspoon is a self-made millionaire who was married to another self-made millionaire. She owns the 1,200 acre horse farm down the road from Lars. Her seven thousand square foot home closely resembles the Southfork mansion of Dallas fame by no accident. She was the show’s biggest fan. She lives alone with the exception of three full time maids, one chauffeur and one beleaguered butler. And that’s just the house help. Stable help comes but often goes – generally just before the Feds arrive to check for papers. Her favorite employees are a team of Mexican gardeners that enthusiastically carry out her frequent and often bizarre landscaping revisions and a gay horse trainer who has worked for her for nearly thirty years.

    Mrs. W, as she calls herself, is lively and outgoing when she’s not drowning her sorrows in her ample supply of eighty-year-old scotch. She and Lars became friends when he pulled her and her BMW out of the creek one night when she was at her lowest point. He drove her home and dropped her into the arms of her ancient, omniscient butler, Felix.

    It was Mrs. W. who talked Garnet into returning to high school to repeat, and this time finish, her senior year. She starts this morning.

    • I have been wondering if Mrs. W. drinks. I may have to use that as one of her demons. She’s not a social drinker. She drinks at night when she is alone. She thinks of it as her “reward.” However, she has bruises from running into the furniture after her third scotch. Not good.

      Each of these characters has trouble. I hadn’t thought of Uncle Lars as gay, but it is definitely a possibility–either that or the long lost love B.J. suggested. He definitely has retreated to the farming life as an escape. Perhaps they all have come to this farm as an escape. I’m still not sure what his struggle is. Perhaps just to adjust to all this female company after decades of living alone!

      Garnet is very bright but also angry (grief in disguise) and feeling disenfranchised from her own generation. She has cut herself off from all her friends, and now with her landscaping assistant job, she is working with a lot of people she might not have met before. She does have one odd characteristic: She is interested in cosmology and quantuum physics. This feeds into a plot point, so I need her to have this odd interest.

      I’m going to stick Mrs. W as rich, but not rich-rich. She has plenty of money, but her house is eight rooms and lovely–not so big that she couldn’t take care of it herself, but rather big now that she is alone. Whether she is a successful/retired business woman or a retired Kindergarten teacher is still up in the air.

      Thanks for your help, BB! I love getting all this input!

  5. Barbara Burris

    Farming – if you love it – has curative powers, both from the animals and the land. The daily demands are so intense it makes a great place to hide from the world and discover your true self.

  6. Barbara Burris

    Mrs. W. is modeled after a lady I knew who owned a trucking company but her heart and soul came alive on her cattle farm. She was a real interesting gal.

  7. Ann, I can tell you what one 5o-ish, bachelor dairy farmer was like when I knew him as a young teenager. He owned a large dairy farm down the street from our home in R.I. He had nieces and nephews help him with chores. One of his nieces was my friend, so I got to know him well.

    First, he was a big man with big, rough hands and a big smile. He passed out juicy fruit gum and listened to cheerful, upbeat music. He was one of the good guys who gave advice whether we wanted it or not. The advice he gave was practical and cliche’ such as “work hard, sleep easy.” How right he was….after rounding up the cows from the fields, getting them into the barn, udders washed and hooked to milking machines, we were exhausted and slept well. Imagine the bachelor farmer in boots and jeans with three young teenage girls running through the fields yelling, “moooo.”

    We had a long hike through winding wooded roads to the main road where the bus would pick us up for school. The bachelor farmer met us in front of our home every single school day and drove us the three miles to the main road so we wouldn’t have to walk.

    He was an honest man.

    • This is so helpful! A detail like the JuicyFruit gum is priceless. I did have a distant uncle with dairy cows, and I remember he made us be quiet in the barn because the cows wouldn’t let down their milk if we upset them. He played music in the barn too! I may have to have a scene with the udder washingand manure shoveling for good measure. Rubber boots? Like Wellingtons? Yes, I see Uncle Lars as quiet, honest, get-to-the point kind of a guy. Thanks for your help!

  8. Garnet is a drug addict with no idea who fathered baby Alta. Her parents died while fleeing members of a motor cycle gang demanding that they pay her drug debt. Her work with the landscaping company involves cultivating dope plants in the extensive gardens of rich people who are too busy exploiting the poor to ever stop and smell the flowers.

    Uncle Lars is a pedophile who preys on troubled juveniles sent to work on the farm by a local judge who is commended by the community for the dedication that sees him often spending his weekends out on the farm visiting his young charges.

    Mrs W is pretending to be lost in grief, but actually scared someone will work out that she killed her abusive ex-Marine husband in self-defense while he was beating her for buying him the wrong brand of beer.

    Or maybe, Ann, you were thinking of these people as fictional characters?

    • YES!!! My kind of characters. I knew you would come through. I came close to e-mailing you a head ‘s up to this prompt.. Your keyboard has been silent too long.

    • Gee, and I haven’t even gotten to the part about the old guy who drops in from eternal space and time to hang out on the farm for a while.

      The way you’ve left it, I have to assume that Mrs W. is going to take her Karate self-defense skills and whip everyone into shape. Or were you thinking that we could turn this particular plot on its head?

      • But wait, there’s more. Here’s the hinge for the plot twist:

        After killing her husband, Mrs W explained his sudden absence by telling her neighbors that he’d been top-secretly recruited by the CIA for a top-secret special mission in downtown Tehran, and then after a few weeks she said he’d top-secretly died there. He is in fact bottom-secretly buried in her garden. Which is now overgrown. Which fact has been noticed by the County Garden Beautification Officer, who orders her to have it cleaned up. By a landscaping company run by his nephew Chad who, despite a troubled youth and subsequent emotional problems, now seems to have straightened his life out and cultivated heaps of bucks from gardening. And who employs, among other people, Garnet, who has just found out that she was in fact adopted after her birth mother was forced to give her up because her fiancée (an angry Marine) was overseas when she was conceived.

        I could go on, but I’m trying to get a life.

  9. Yes, and I need to catch my breath. It could be that Garnet and Mrs. W are, in fact, related. Those ex-Marines are hard to live with.

    That is one heck of a plot. Please feel free to live on, FM.

  10. A few thoughts immediately came to mind when reading about the characters you mention. You mention possible speech patterns – could Lars live away from people and be a bachelor because he stutters or has a serious hearing disability? And as for Mrs.W – why does she want to avoid anyone who wants to talk about her past life? Did she lose her children in an accident and it brings up sad memories? Is that why she wants to be around children? Is she Jewish – were her parents or grandparents in the Holocaust? Maybe her husband was a “Mafia Don” who wanted out and was killed? Maybe she is in Witness Protection? Gosh, so may possibilities, so many story ideas. 🙂

    • This gives me a lot of food for thought I’m going to think about Lars’ stutter, which could be something that changes over the course of the story. Mrs. W. is deeply grieving, I think, feeling the kind of pain that would send an animal seeking time alone. But you make it clear that this needs more explanation. Thanks!

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