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Characterisation: The Expected Vs "The Recognisable & Surprising"

In lots of scripts, characters all sound and act the same. I don’t mean they’re LITERALLY the same – most writers will go to some lengths to include *differentish* characters, especially in terms of dialogue – but strip away those idioms, different genders, colours, races, the way they dress or whatever and WHAMMO – the same characters I [and countless other readers] have seen before.

I always think this is odd, because as writers we are confronted by the differences in people every single day: whether those people are in our own family, our neighbours, the parents at the school gates, shop assistants, cold callers on the phone, NOT ONE is the same. Even identical twins are NOT truly *identical*.

One of the most stereotyped or at least same-ish characters I see on practically a daily basis is The Mother. All of us have had one, all of us know some, yet day in, day out I see The Mother represented as one of JUST TWO WAYS:

The Depressed Mum. Depressed Mum has postnatal depression or can’t bond with her baby *for some reason*. She spends a lot of time letting the baby cry in its crib or pushchair whilst crying herself or STARING OUT OF A WINDOW. If she has other children, she plonks them in front of the TV and/or shouts at them a lot. Sometimes she’s a junkie or self medicates with alcohol. She nearly always smokes.


Super-Enthused Mum. Super Enthused Mum has taken to motherhood like a duck to water and CAN DO ANYTHING. She is super healthy, her kids are angels and she usually has in excess of the usual two kids – sometimes as many as four or five. She works full time but still finds the time to run marathons, bake fantastic cakes and be like WELL, SEXY MAN.

So basically (as is so often the case when it comes to characterisation) we’re talking two COMPLETELY OPPOSITE ENDS of the scale here. What’s more, neither have any *real* grounding in reality.

My response? Yawn.

I’ve been a mother now for over a third of my life, but even if I hadn’t, I don’t think it’s difficult to find ALTERNATIVES to these very obvious stereotypes; all we have to do is LOOK AROUND US. That’s right – take a really good look. You’ll be drawing with broad strokes at first – we never know what’s *really* going on – but from there, we have a STARTING POINT FOR SOMETHING DIFFERENT.

So here’s my tongue in cheek list of the *types* of Mother I’ve seen around, at various school gates, at work, in the street, at toddler groups, BBQs, fetes, coffee mornings and the like:

Military Mum. This lady isn’t the army – but she does everything with MILITARY PRECISION. This may be because she has a multitude of under 5s to control, or because she’s a control freak. She always has tissues for inevitable mishaps, that antibacterial handgel stuff and she never leaves the house without bottles, nappies or the various favourite blankets/toys. When she utters a command, her kids COME RUNNING; you rarely see her lot tantrumming in the street. Military Mum thinks Free Range Mum (below) is a wimp.

Free Range Mum. Free Range Mum works on this basis: “If the kids aren’t dead, ill or screaming, everything is more or less fine”. Free Range Mum is not laissez-faire or hands off, quite the opposite; she cares about her children’s emotional and physical needs, but also appreciates the kids’ needs to fight their own battles and discover their own stuff. Free Range Mum gives her kids sweets AS LONG AS said kids have eaten all their dinner. She disapproves of helicopter parenting and thinks *most* things – bar playing in the middle of the road, illegal drugs or going off with strangers! – is OK in moderation. Free Range Kids can be gobby but largely well-behaved, with the odd tantrum or big argument, in comparison to Uptight Mum’s kids (next).

Uptight Mum. Uptight Mum is BESIEGED with guilt – for working, for not working, for putting her baby on the bottle, for buying stuff her kids want/don’t want, for picking the “wrong” school or nursery – you name it. She spends all her time on internet forums asking those “more experienced” Mums than herself WHAT TO DO and believes her husband or partner DOES NOT UNDERSTAND what she’s going through, so keeps a lot of her worries and fears locked inside. Uptight’s Kids have clocked their Mum’s angst as a result and play her up A LOT, which feeds into the vicious cycle of her thinking she is a bad parent. At first, Free Range Mum spends a lot of time trying to console Uptight Mum, but ends up getting peeved with her and telling her she needs to CHILL OUT. This doesn’t work out either.

Eco Mum. Everything for this Mum is about SAVING THE PLANET and LIVING HEALTHILY, which she feels will rub off positively on her kids in terms of being responsible. Eco mums are often easily recognisable by their sandals and 3/4 length jeans, with a surfie tee shirt. Eco Mums would never in a million years put their kids in disposable nappies and have fully adopted the “breast is best” mantra. Eco Kids are often only allowed sweets or pop at weekends, so as they get older, they may sneak off to Free Range Mum’s house to get biscuits etc on the sly which drives Eco Mum WILD with fury.

Mega Mum. Mega Mum has LOTS AND LOTS of kids, usually all close together in age. Mega Mum frequently spends the first five years of her firstborn’s primary school years pregnant and pushing a buggy. Mega mum hardly ever works because she’d never afford the childcare – even if her husand earns a decent wage – but then she works hard enough! The washing machine is always on and the hoover is always being pushed around the house and the house is tidy – as long as you NEVER open the cupboards where she’s stashed everything away! Sometimes Mega Mum is a cross-breed with Military Mum, but just as frequently she is a Free Range Mum as well.

Harrassed Mum. Harrassed Mum shares some characteristics of Uptight Mum, though she’s less crippled with guilt. Parenthood is a mega hassle to her and she CAN’T WAIT for the time the kids leave home. She’ll tell anyone who’ll listen – even though her youngest is only six months old! She’s been counting down every stage of the kids’ childhood – getting them out of nappies, getting them into school, getting them to uni… Sometimes (and weirdly) Harrassed Mum is also Superior Mum (below).

Superior Mum. Her name says it all – she has the best stuff, the best kids, the best plans – SHE’S BETTER THAN YOU. It’s likely she moved into her well-fancy house before she even CONCEIVED her kids so they can go to the *best school in the area*… That’s how good she is at forward planning. She had a problem-free pregnancy and knows all there is to know about drugs, birth, C-Sections, you name it. Superior Mum tends to think Stay at Home Mums are saddos: Superior Mum was working right up until her due date and back six weeks later! She is likely to work full time and pays for the top nannies/nursery care to ensure her child is a GENIUS. Free Range Mum is the DEADLY NEMESIS of Superior Mum.

Single Mum # 1: Tigress. This lady isn’t going to let a little thing like Daddy not being around blight her parenting or her kids’ childhood. If the father still wants to be involved, she will allow it for the kids’ sake though she doesn’t like it. If he’s done a runner, she won’t go looking for a substitute “in-house” Dad, but instead encourage male role models via grandfathers, platonic male friends, etc. Like Free Range Mum she’s a hands-on Mum who reckons all’s fine as long as no one’s screaming, but after a few drinks she may reveal a few of Uptight Mum’s insecurities, especially regarding providing for the children AND being there for them, the latter which she can feel she misses out on, sometimes. Tigress sometimes feels jealous of Mouse (below), but has great affection for her.

Single Mum # 2: Mouse. This lady has been badly battered by divorce/relationship breakdown but continues stalwartly and quietly on. She’s at the school gates every morning and afternoon and has had to accept she cannot necessarily work full time and NOT miss out on things like sports day, school plays, helping out at school etc, so Mouse typically downsizes MASSIVELY and lives with less to balance the two. Mouse may be a Free Range Mum or an Eco Mum too. Mouse has admiration for Tigress’ drive and they’re often great friends, with Mouse frequently picking up Tigress’ kids for her from school.

So, rather than go for the EXPECTED – think on:

How can I create a character my reader/audience will RECOGNISE, yet still be surprised by?

Remember, you’ll be drawing in broad strokes like the above list AT FIRST – but then FOCUS IN on your character, make him/her 3D by giving them that *je ne se quois* that is unique to them, thus AVOIDING STEREOTYPE. Don’t forget Character has its own section in The Required Reading List. Good luck!

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  1. Pingback: 6 Stock Characters That Need Retiring By Writers NOW | Bang2Write

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