Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Literary Clichés Part Four: Stock Characters

Most, but not all, from Golden Age mysteries from the 20s and 30s.

The arty woman in the folkweave djibbah
and handcrafted silver jewellery – a stereotype from the early 20s that persisted even when women like this had moved on (picture by Alphonse Mucha). She is related to the medium festooned with scarabs and clanking necklaces. (Did lazy writers borrow stereotypes from each other? Of course they did. And – warning – some of them are offensive.)

Young man adores the ballet. He goes on about psychology (it was a 20s and 30s fad) and is keen to tell you what “type” he is. Converse of the typical Brit who thinks introspection is “morbid”. A brisk tramp over the moors will soon sort that out! And look what happens if you ever think about yourself and your personality and your problems – you start liking ballet! (Mr Riggert in Margery Allingham's Flowers for the Judge.)

The theatre… always works well for murder stories: the disparate people, the varied backgrounds, the close working group, the possibilities for past histories. (Moira Redmond, Clothes in Books) Here between the wars you may find the prima donna, the ingenue, the slightly past-it romantic leading man, the character actor, the player who is "not 100% he-man" and may wear a hat of slightly too vivid a green. (Yes, thankfully attitudes have changed.)

Just postwar, the refugee who doesn’t realise when she’s well off and is a bit of a snob. (Mitzi in Christie's A Murder Is Announced)Lissa Evans’ majestic WW2 homefront book, Crooked Heart, where Hilde the Austrian refugee complains of her new life: "This is not what I am used to. At home we had a pastry cook. I studied the harp.” (Moira Redmond) As so often, Christie subverts the stereotype.

The half-witted servant girl. Actress Kathleen Harrison made a career out of playing working-class women who are amusingly dim. She did this by putting her head one side and simpering.

One of those washed-up and bitter ex-servicemen who feature in macho adventure stories. Something terrible will happen which will cause him to find the man he used to be and, somehow, at the end of it all he will be saved by the love of a good woman, one who can see through the unkemptness and the bitterness to the man beyond. (JP) You'll find them in the works of Desmond Bagley and Gavin Lyall.

@Lord_Steerforth nails Anthony Trollope:
Each novel seems to feature the following stock characters:
A penniless young man on the make
A young woman who can't decide whether to marry for love or money
A rich widower who is exasperated by his children's behaviour
A virtuous girl
Someone called Frank
A feisty, outspoken elderly duchess (and her dissolute son)
A middle-aged bachelor who's a bit of a chump
A penniless spinster who exists as a 'companion' to an aristocrat
A man of doubtful social origins who believes that he is a gentleman
A wealthy widow who delights in toying with her suitors
Other ingredients: foxhunting and a will.


The fop. Was Philo Vance one of a genre of monocled, upper-crust, foppish, dandified, classics-quoting detectives including Wimsey, Campion and, originally, Alleyn? How many more are there? Bertie Wooster? (Except that Jeeves has the learning.) Did Vance really have a “phony English accent”? Did people in the 20s really call each other “old dear/thing/bean”? Was he originally a stock character of the stage? Foppish heroes “continued with the pulp fiction and radio heroes of the 1920s and 1930s and expanded with the coming of comic books,” says Wikipedia. See also The Scarlet Pimpernel.

In women’s and girls’ fiction of the late 19th cent to the 20s, characters were “worldly”, which was something you had to avoid. The stereotype lived on in girls’ comics in the 50s and 60s: there was a Belinda Mason in one of the ballet-school stories who looked like Diana Dors and wore a white angora bolero. She wanted to be a star, but she didn't know how to lace up her pointe shoes.

Characters with Aspergers: Prince Myshkin (Dostoievsky's The Idiot), Jeremy Boob (Yellow Submarine), Barnaby Rudge, Sherlock, Saga Noren of Scandi-noir series The Bridge. But Saga and Sherlock's deductive powers are a kind of mystical clairvoyance, and their autism is due to traumatic childhood experiences. So we don't need to worry about them being cleverer than us - they aren't really clever, they just have a "gift". It's not ratiocination, it's intuition. And they aren't really "different" – if they hadn't had psychopathic siblings/mothers they'd be just like us. And all stories need a “sympathetic character we can identify with”, so writers must turn these people, originally interestingly odd, into just plain folks. Dog in the Night Time and The Bridge are careful not to mention the words “Aspergers” or “autism”, so that they can make it up. What they’re depicting is “folk autism”.


In Cicely Disappears by “A. Monmouth Platts” (Anthony Berkeley Cox), a house party contains: dowagers, bright young things, silly asses, a famous explorer, a bluff colonel, a shifty major-domo... (It’s a spoof of an early Christie which was probably a spoof in itself. What are the stereotypes of today?)

More here, and links to the rest.

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