Types, Stereotypes & Original Characters

As storytellers we often rely on readers being familiar with archetypes—the wise elder, the innocent youth, the seductress, the fool, the orphaned children, the brave warrior, the idealistic leader, and many more….

Upending those well known figures can open up new venues for fiction. I just read an astounding novel by Ruth Rendell entitled “The Tree of Hands.” I missed it when it came out in the 1980s and I’m glad I impulsively purchased it for my Kindle right before I left on my trip. I was so agitated by the wild ride that sometimes I had to take breaks from the narrative and read the NEWS for relief. When the Washington Post and New York Times are restful by comparison, you’ve got to know that this was an extraordinary story.

Each of the characters reveal themselves in their bad choices, mistaken assumptions, and, to their greatest peril, the natural, and very human, habit of painting pictures of the life they want in lieu of living the one they have. It’s a tumult of good, and not so good people, making bad and very bad choices that lead to crime, death, and more. Most, ultimately suffer the consequences, but not all of them.

I have to commend the late mystery author on her extraordinary ability to start with characters that seem clichéd, even stereotyped, keep them on a track that is coherent and yet defy stereotypes at every turn.

This cast of characters will haunt me for a long time and I’ll endeavor to find my own way to create original characters.

Characters making choices and experiencing consequences—sometimes.


  1. I think I’ve read some of Ruth Rendell’s work, but not for decades. I might have to give this one a try.
    My take on cliches has always been that they work /because/ they are so familiar. Of course a reader from a different century might find them utterly unfamiliar and therefore useless. From what you’ve said though, it sounds as if the author has used the familiarity of those characters as a kind of foil in order to use your expectations against you. That’s damn clever. 🙂

    • Candy Korman

      She was clever and cunning in her use of my expectations—genius!

      From a storyteller’s point-of-view, I want my characters to make choices that make sense to them, but not necessarily to the reader. For instance, a person choosing to commit murder must have a reason that makes sense in the context of the story. The reader might feel sympathetic and horrified at the same time. (That’s just about a perfect response.) Ruth Rendell created characters with atypical fatal flaws and atypical choices. When the most rational and most sympathetic of the people in The Tree of Hands chooses inaction in response to a clear injustice, I was shocked. When various other characters suffer the consequences of their choices and this character does not, I was even more shocked. One character gets a happy-ish ending in the midst of despair and desperation. The story was unnerving from start to finish.