Leveraging Stereotypes and Developing Shorthand to Reveal Character Traits and Relationships
Updated: Nov 17, 2021
I received a question from a member the other day about how to use shorthand in character interaction to reveal character traits and show relationships, and I thought it was a great opportunity to write a (very, very, very) overdue Writing Advice blog post!
In this post, I’m going to show how to achieve this two ways:
Developing shorthand between characters
It’s important to make sure you’re presenting a well-rounded and convincing world in your stories and a huge part of that is making sure your web of character relationships and the characters themselves are believable, robust, and interesting. By taking advantage of some pre-planning and, yes, stereotypes, your reader can get a more complete and compelling picture of your characters and their relationships with others. Some writing websites and craft books talk about a standard set of twelve archetypes defined in literature, but I think we need to go further.
I want to take a moment to make an important distinction as well. When I’m talking about stereotypes, I mean the societal and personality stereotypes we see used in media. The jock. The class clown. The shy heroine. We want to ensure we’re avoiding the harmful stereotypes which have been perpetuated in all media for pretty much as long as there has been media, including stereotypes based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, and so on. Keep this distinction and the ability to subvert these in mind as you read this advice.
To use an example from one of my works in progress, It Was Always Going to End Like This, in the opening scene of the first page, we get a first glance of our protagonist, Mathieu Tremblay. We get to know two characters in these brief paragraphs, both Mathieu and how he characterizes his best friend, Geo.
As Ms. Ng draws an example right triangle on the whiteboard, I swear I can actually feel my life begin to slip away in this stupid, useless class. Workplace Math. I couldn’t give a shit about it, but it was a compromise. My parents let me take whatever else I wanted in my senior year as long as I had one marketable skill. So here I sit as the teacher turns to hand out the syllabus. It’s day one. Only one hundred and eighty-nine to go. But who’s counting?
Can I go home yet? I text Geo, my best friend and as always in a different class than me. He’s in the smart-kid classes. He has goals.
Please don’t do anything stupid, Geo texts back.
“Put away the phone, Mr. Tremblay,” Ms. Ng says from the front of the room.
I pocket it, then start drumming on my empty desk. The other kids look at me but won’t say anything. What are they supposed to say to one of the most popular guys in school stuck in Workplace-fucking-Math? Still, a smile spreads across my face. If I have to be here, I’m going to make it fun.
Both these characterizations rely heavily on stereotypes: Mathieu is the popular kid who doesn’t care about much, a typical troublemaker who’s only here to do the easy thing, pass, and move on. Geo is the smart guy, the voice of reason. He’s the guy who’s going to anchor Mat through the book. We get that from five paragraphs. (It’s why it’s easy to roll your eyes at Mat in the first few pages.) But because we’ve established those core pieces of their personalities we’re all intimately familiar with from dozens of pieces of media that rely on those exact character stereotypes, we as writers only have to tell the readers now how they differ from or build on those stereotypes.
And that is the key point! How does your character differ from or build on that stereotype? Because if Mathieu and Geo just continued on for the book as those characters introduced in these first few paragraphs, you’ll lose your readers for the exact reason the stereotypes are handy—they’ve read about these characters a hundred times before. In this case, we will quickly learn why Mat is the way he is after his prank goes wrong (or right, if you look at it from his point of view) and why Geo is so protective. We see Mat is a whole lot less cocky than the persona he puts on, and maybe being the voice-of-reason might actually be Geo’s ultimate fatal flaw instead.
DEVELOPING “SHORTHAND” BETWEEN CHARACTERS
Developing shorthand between your characters is an interesting exercise in getting to know who everyone is and who they are to each other. An example from another of my WIPs, Falling from Grace, contains an interaction between two siblings and another with one of those siblings and her parents. So much of what happens in these scenes are things which are clearly not new to the characters, and it’s very easy for conversations to turn into obvious exposition—you know, that “As you know, Bob…” trap—but there are a few tricks you can use to avoid that.
One brief interaction shows one way. I talk more about this in my “Show vs. Tell” workshop, but by establishing a characteristic earlier in the story by showing it, you can continually use it from then on in a “telling” way as a shorthand or shortcut for the reader without having to explain it over and over. In this scene, it’s the clover tongue Grace gives to her twin brother, Jamie. Earlier in the story, Jamie reflects on how he and his sister had a sign where if she flashed her clover tongue or Jamie crossed the only eye he can, their fight had to end, no matter what. Here, Grace flashes her clover tongue as she’s trying to convince him to come to church, but I don’t have to explain that again, and Jamie’s reaction is obvious enough to call back to the earlier scene.
“Okay,” she said finally. “I’ll miss you.”
Jamie’s gaze shot to hers from the video game. “Don’t.”
She smiled a bit. “I’m not guilting you! Just, you know, it’s Christmas Eve and all.”
“Grace. . .,” Jamie groaned. “Isn’t it enough that you roped Benji into this?”
“Is it a crime to want my boys around?”
Jamie’s head dropped back into the headboard. “Fuck, Grace, sometimes I hate you so much.” Grace stuck out her clover tongue, and Jamie swore again. “Give me fifteen minutes.”
“I’ll stall for you,” she said bouncing a bit. “Thank you.”
In her later interaction with her parents, she has a fight she’s surely had before, maybe several times, but it’s a necessary one for the reader to see. So, how do we present this without it sounding like it’s only for the reader’s benefit? The way I approached this was making it an unfinished fight, only allowing for the most basic information to come through, providing the dual purpose of giving the reader enough information to know what the fight is about while being able to demonstrate this isn’t new—this has happened offscreen before.
Then, her mother’s gaze fell to Grace’s side where her purse and camera bag hung. “I asked you to leave your camera at home.”
Grace adjusted the strap on her shoulder. “I thought it’d be nice to get some family pictures. Besides, the church is beautiful when—”
Her mom cut her off. “Tonight is about God, Grace. We are celebrating Him sending His son to save the world, to save humanity. I think that’s a little more important than your little pictures.”
Grace stuck out her chin, refusing to look to Benji. “I just thought it would be nice—” she tried again before she was cut off.
“Unbelievable,” her mother muttered. “Let’s go, James. We’re already late.”
Her father looked to Grace. “Can you just give your mother one calm night?”
Grace looked to her feet. “Yeah. Of course.” She let go of Benji’s hand and slipped her camera bag under the hall table.
So, to sum up, here are some questions you can ask yourself:
What character stereotypes do your characters most emulate, and how do their wants/needs/goals allow or force them to differ or build on that? Think about how you want your characters to change over the course of your story and use that to influence how you might want to make changes to that foundation of their personality.
About creating shorthand between characters:
What offscreen interactions have your characters had that have had a significant impact on their relationship and how they interact? Both positive and negative! What are their inside jokes? What does your character know about the other that another might not know, like what subjects to avoid or how angry it makes them when someone interrupts them? All relationships, close ones or toxic ones, are built on those small moments. Try to figure out what they are.
These questions might be easier to answer at first if you try them out on your real relationships. Think of your best friends or family members. What are the “offscreen” moments which a stranger or acquaintance might witness that would let them understand your relationship without you having to explain? What is the first impression your friend or family members gives versus how you really know them? Then apply that same thing to your characters, primary and secondary! All this will help give a more well-rounded, realistic view of your world and the characterization within your web of relationships.
Good luck! If you have any questions, or if you’ve done the exercises and would like to share, feel free to drop something in the comments!
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