When a Writer Defaults — Muse on Writing

Karl C. Klein, author of Unnatural Girl soon to be published by Second Wind Publishing, muses about writing:

I cover a lot of ground.

Reminder: I don’t have the benefit of a formal education. This essay is from my observations. 

The difference between an archetype and a stereotype is vast. The archetype stands as bones upon which we hang flesh — a stereotype is a cardboard cutout we allow our readers to flesh out. I’ve come to call the use of stereotypes defaulting.  

People assume what they assume, shorthanding the world. (I know shorthanding isn’t a word.) We pre-decide many aspects of life. I believe this to be a gift from Darwin, but I’m not going into that aspect. I want to talk about literary fiction.  

When a writer defaults.  

Reading a short story some years ago, I was introduced to many characters. Finally, a new character entered the story. The writer wrote: 

“He was a black man.” 

I wondered about the racial background of all the other characters. I wondered why the writer found it important to mention his race and not the race of the other characters. I wondered: what does he really mean by “He was a black man.” 

The writer used a default. Obviously, all his characters were white, unless otherwise noted. But still, what does he mean by “He was a black man.” I think of the many, many black males I’ve known over the years, their similarities and their differences and realize the statement doesn’t tell me anything worthwhile. After all, Colin Powel and William Drayton (Flavor Flav) are both black men and from where I’m sitting, have little in common. 

“He was a black man” is meant as a default, a stereotype, a cardboard cutout, a straw man merely to take the place where a real character might stand. The reader has the responsibility to hang the flesh on this character based on the reader’s prejudgment of what a black man looks like and how he might act. 

Let’s bring another character into the room: “She was a blonde.” 

OK, now we have a story populated with Will Smith and Brittany Spears. 

Note: Blonde is a person, normally female, with blond-colored hair. This term in many circles is consider derogatory (The color of the hair is not the person. To say, “See that blonde over there” is akin to saying: “See those tits over there?”) To me, in literary fiction, I see ‘Blonde’ as a meaningless term, saying nothing about the character. The term blond refers to a range of colors from sun-faded wicker to light walnut. 

Allow me a copy and paste here, a snippet from a short story, “Remembering the 4th:” 

“Minutes before lunch, I found myself suspended against the lockers outside English class, angry faces like an animated Whitman Sampler pushed shouts at me. The walnut face holding me leached so close, I knew we’d be having pizza for lunch.” 

Let me backtrack a moment and say this: there’s nothing wrong with populating your work with straw men, allowing the reader to flesh them out. It’s been a style growing in popularity, some people arguing we should describe characters and scenes as little as possible, allowing the reader to be more involved in the creation of the story. I have no idea what the style might be called, but I call it ‘reductionism.’  

The rewrite of “Waiting for Godot:” 

The curtain opens, the stage is bare. For sixty minutes the audience stares, waiting for something to happen, imagining what Estragon and Vladimir might do if they were there. Now that’s existentialism.  


(Note: OK is the preferred spelling over okay, though I prefer okay, I write OK with clenched teeth just like I drop the *@%* comma between two independent clauses connected with a conjunction, though I hate that comma with the passion of 10,000 suns. However, I’ll only give up my comma splices when they peel the pen from my cold, dead hand). 

Anytime we drop something generic on the page, we’re defaulting. When we say ‘his eyes were brown,’ we’re assuming the reader is going to know what we’re talking about when in reality, brown for eyes is a generic color.  

Again, a copy and paste, this time from a book in process I’m editing as she writes, “As Time Goes By:” 

“I thought her eyes should be blue like the midday summer sky, but they were like oiled rawhide with splotches of suede and a baker’s chocolate corona.” 

(there’s that comma I hate with the passion of 10,000 suns) 

Note, too, the ‘midday summer sky’ is a different blue than a winter sky or even a morning sky. 

Another copy and paste from the same work: 

“Uncle Mike’s eyes are dark and rich like winter evergreen in the shadows but with a hint of moist soil. His hair’s black, almost blue with a curl flipping in the front like Superman. I had to look up, standing under him.” 

Let me address modifiers while we’re here. As the writer, we often get in the story and write from our point of view and not the character’s. We want to make a statement like “He was very tall,” which in reality is meaningless to the reader. First off, ‘very’ is not a very good modifier because it doesn’t say much.  

Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. —Mark Twain 

“Very” isn’t a very good modifier.

“Very” isn’t a good modifier. 

Both say the same thing. “Very” is great in dialog, particularly with excited tweens, but in narrative, similes and comparisons are better. 

“I had to look up, standing under him.”

is much better than:

“He was very tall.” 

Another example of ‘show’ instead of ‘tell.’ 

Another example from a short story: “Love Letters,” by Kacie Kameron: 

“I had the gift of a perfect love. 

I was fifteen, spellbound by his brown-green eyes, the color of wet cow dung, intoxicated by the moist sea air and hot summer morning.” 

I think when people say a story needs to open with a hook, this is what they’re talking about.  

“wet cow dung” is wonderful. 

Good writing is hard work. Great writing is damn hard work.

2 Responses to “When a Writer Defaults — Muse on Writing”

  1. Ken Coffman Says:

    I prefer to put it this way:

    Very is a crappy modifier.

    Great commentary, Karl. Thanks.

  2. Sarah Collins Honenberger Says:

    Karl: I’m with you on the laziness of cliches. Janet Oleander once said in an interview that her writing mentor told her cliches are any description that’s ever been used before, a tough standard but one that separates writers who take their craft seriously and those who are only interested in seeing their name in print without any investment in time or hard work. All that said, the metaphor has to fit with the story and the emotion that’s being portrayed or it stands out like a …. fish in a cattle yard. Why would you use the description of wet cowdung when you were 15 and in love with the man whose eyes you were staring into? It might be descriptive but it’s so disgusting an image, the reader might even want to put the book down, finding the narrator a little too unbelievable, the stretch too far, the hard work too visible. As writers we are supposed to be invisible. What you don’t want is a reviewer to say, that author is so clever as if she/he were a stand up comedian waiting for applause. Sorry, my pet peeve is writers who want you to know they’re writing.

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