Monday, April 14, 2014

Doctor, Lawyer, Soldier, Chef

By Pamela

One of my favorite riddles goes like this:

A man and his son were in an automobile accident. The father was killed instantly, and the boy was taken to a nearby hospital for treatment. After it was determined that the boy needed surgery, he was taken to the OR. The surgeon took one look at the patient and said, "I can't operate on him. He is my son."

How can this be?

Flickr image by Dr. Case
Before I reveal the answer, let's talk a bit about character. Often times we've heard characters referred to as cliched or stereotypical. The gay hairdresser/florist. The dumb jock. The blond cheerleader. The crooked politician. What's true about hobbies and professions can also apply to personalities. Not all mothers are loving. Not all old people are wise. Not all children are prodigies. Not all best friends are quirky. Be careful that you don't apply stock traits to your list of characters if you want them to be memorable.

I'm pretty sure my generation (and any before mine) tends to be quicker to put people into categories than our children are. Play a little game with me. As you read through the list of professions, assign a gender to it--the first that comes to mind.

  • Doctor
  • Nurse
  • Pilot
  • Flight Attendant
  • Teacher
  • Lawyer
  • Soldier
  • Dentist
  • CEO
  • Plumber
  • Electrician
  • Mechanic
  • Farmer
  • Jailer 
  • Landscaper
  • Maid
  • Jockey
  • Artist
  • Coach
  • Preacher
  • Programmer
  • Writer
  • Chef

(For fun, after you're finished, read the list to your child and see if he or she gets the same answers.) There's no crime in associating a certain gender with a particular profession. A lot of it likely has to do with your frame of reference. If every farmer you've ever met was male, then you'll naturally picture a man--probably wearing a pair of overalls and a John Deer cap--when someone says, "Hey, there's a farmer."

But consider taking a character in your story--particularly one who isn't coming alive on the page for you--and making that person the opposite gender. You might find his or her personality explodes once you've changed genders. Just be careful about going against type to the point of being obtrusive. If your main character is a female pilot who falls in love with a male flight attendant, only to find he's dying of cancer, and his oncologist is female, his nurse is male and they have to postpone building their dream home, so their female architect is put on notice ... it might work or it might be a little jarring.

As your reader gets younger, worrying about a character's gender should be less of an issue. For instance, my 10-year-old has a female dentist and a female pediatrician. Her dog's vet is female. Her fifth grade teacher is male (as was her fourth). Her principal is female. She doesn't assume gender like I do. My friend Maureen is a pilot and her son, when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, said he really wanted to be a pilot but that was a girl's job. But if your reader is 30 or older, he or she likely has more preconceived notions about what to expect from characters. Take that into consideration and then decide how to make your characters come alive.

Back to the riddle at the beginning of this post ... in case you haven't figured it out: When asked to operate on the boy, the surgeon said, "I can't operate on him. He is my son."

The surgeon was his mother.

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