This winter I taught a Saturday writing class for middle graders. In my case, old teaching habits die hard. Within the first five minutes, I had mentally categorized each student. Front and center sat the precocious girl who has read every book imaginable and does her best to monopolize each discussion. The back row was occupied by the quiet, brainy gamer listening to his iPod and the ultra cool gum-popper who texted her friends and ignored my existence.
For teachers it's a matter of survival to quickly assess the best way to work with each student. If teasing has worked with brainy gamers in the past, I'm going to tease the heck out of this one. If I've had success seating cool gum-poppers in the front row, you can bet I'll do it again.
I believe the same approach is often true when we create characters. At the outset of our novels, we want readers to have a frame of reference to build on. Is our MC the smart, quiet type or the mouthy, struggling student? The class clown or the know-it-all brainiac? The nerd or the knucklehead? When our MCs show some common traits, readers can quickly form mental images of them.
But, in order to be believable, characters must be three-dimensional beings. As our story unfolds, so do the many facets of our MC. The painfully shy boy with illegible handwriting who cowers in the face of bullies emerges as a leader in his Boy Scout troop. Armed with his newfound confidence, he auditions for his high school's song and dance ensemble, surprising himself and his classmates with his musical abilities. Before the novel ends, he earns the lead in the high school's musical. Revealed along the way are his love for animals, his irrational fear of clowns, and--at home--his nonstop talking which drives his parents to the edge. Each revealed trait adds another dimension to his character so that, by the end of the story, our Pinocchio has become a real boy.
At first glance many people--real or imagined--seem to fit familiar personality types. As authors, our task is to carefully create and then expose the layers beneath the familiar surface. Each of those layers fashions a unique individual readers will remember long after the story has ended.