Monday, November 23, 2009

Nosy Neighbors and Other Stock Characters

La Primavera 1936--Anselmo-Bucci-1887-1955 One popular stock character in books and film is the nosy neighbor.

Have you had a nosy neighbor before? They collect a hodgepodge of random and fairly useless information about their neighbors. If you've had plumbing problems, dirty carpets, or electrical problems, they're sure to spot the van in your driveway and make a note of it. Have family over to visit? They'll know that too--or at least that you have someone over and they'll speculate who they are until they finally break down and ask you.

I've had a nosy neighbor before. She'd call up our house and ask if everything was all right: she'd seen my husband's car there--was he home sick from work? Was the baby okay? Did I need a casserole?

Nosy neighbors? They exist. And not only in books and on TV.

The Mysterious Matters blog is written by an anonymous editor….or, maybe, publisher, of a smaller press. In the post, Ten Characters to Put Out to Pasture, he made a list of ten stock characters he’s tired of reading.

The nosy neighbor isn’t on there, but a garrulous neighbor is.

His points are valid ones. Here is his list:

The pill-popping, alcoholic, cold society woman; the overly garrulous neighbor; the bitchy teenage girl; the sleazy male boss; the precocious and wise-beyond-his-or-her years niece or nephew; the cub reporter and her hard-as-nails-but-secretly-sensitive editor; the snobbish matriarch fiercely protecting family secrets; the cocky dude whom the heroine falls for, despite his arrogance; the wisecracking detective; and the town crazy.

Wow. What a group!

There are different ones for different genres. But why are they stock characters to begin with?

I think many people have met folks like them. It makes them believable.

Like my nosy neighbor. Everybody’s had one in their neighborhood.

The trick is to put a unique spin on the characters. What makes them different? What makes them three dimensional and not a cardboard cutout of other characters like them? Do they grow as characters? Do they react differently in different situations? What gives them some depth? What do they do that’s unexpected?

One thing I know about my particular nosy neighbor. She felt like she was taking care of me. Mrs. Triola was an elderly lady with too much time on her hands--and spent much of it looking out the window. I, ten years ago, was a young mother with a very busy toddler and no time to worry over the inconsistencies of the mail delivery or the garbage pickup. What if, one day, Mrs. Triola had actually seen something? What if she'd had a Hitchcock Rear Window moment? She'd have been pleased as punch if she'd been able to stop a crime in progress, call the fire department at the first sign of smoke, or alert me to an approaching tornado.

She had a good heart. Another dimension than 'nosy neighbor.'

Yes, there are stock characters, just like there are stereotypes. Do they exist because there’s some truth to them? Should we avoid using these characters altogether--or just work harder to make them unique?