Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Stamp out Stereotypes

The big-busted blond with a ditzy giggle.

The tough Irish cop who’s seen it all.

The downtrodden single mother.

The Italian mobster in the dark sedan.

The wise old man.

The black rapper on the street corner.

The smart Asian kid.

The fashion wizard who is gay.

The above are descriptions of common characters we see in fiction. These descriptions are also stereotypes. We probably all learned about stereotypes in elementary school - stereotypes are generalization about a group of people. We assign a set of defined characteristics to this group and label them.

Stereotyping is a common everyday occurrence. We evaluate one another based on the stereotypes we have formed from the experiences we have had or from the portrayals we have seen on TV, in the movies, or in the books we read. It is our brain’s way of organizing information.

Stereotypes can be helpful. The stereotype that tall people need longer pants may be helpful to a salesperson in a clothing store when he sees six foot tall man looking frustrated as he sorts through a pile of pants. Stereotypes can be humourous. Scott Adams’ comic Dilbert pokes fun at people who work in cubicles. Often, stereotypes can be harmful. We see this demonstrated frequently in the form of discrimination.

When stereotypes find their way into our writing, it can make the story boring.

When you create a character based on a stereotype, the character doesn’t have individual traits like a real person. They are actually a composition of generalizations of many people. Using stereotypes instead of fully developing characters strips the story of its originality. In doing so, you are saying that any individual from that group will act in the same way and make the same decisions resulting in the same outcomes and thereby creating the same story.

A predictable story is a death sentence in the publishing world.

People are complex. They are unpredictable. They can be illogical and inconsistent. Characters are fictional people and have all the complexities and paradoxes that real people have. Think about your best friend, someone you know really well, remember a time when they surprised you by doing something really ‘out of character.’ It caught you off guard; it made you look at them in a new way. I bet you learned something new about your friend.

I have a friend who is shy, quiet and studious. She completed nine years of university and now that she is done, still spends a considerable amount of time with her nose pressed between the pages of a text book. She is just as serious about her job. She can also be the silliest person in the room and snorts when she laughs too hard. She is also never on time for anything and loves baseball. If she was a character, think about how boring she would be if she was constrained to the ‘bookworm’ stereotype?

Look at your characters. Are they real characters or have you used stereotypes? What makes your character unique? What is your character’s paradox?

Also consider how your story contributes to the formation of stereotypes. How diverse are your characters? Is everyone in the story white? Is that typical for the genre you are writing? For the period? Location? How can you make your setting and your characters more realistic? How can you make your story more interesting and complex by including a diverse cast of characters? (And make sure you don’t make your diverse characters victims of stereotypes!!)


Anne Germaine said...

It is getting to be the norm that I don't have computer access on the days I blog! I'll check in on comments later in the day.

Helena said...

This is an excellent example of a trap that a writer could fall into. Unless there is something unique about the stereotypical characters you mention, it's just another ho-hum portrayal. And why would readers care or be interested?

And how wrong we can be in real life by assuming a set of characteristics about an individual just because of an occupation, race, age, national origin, etc. etc.

I remember when I was doing my postgrad work at library school (as it was called then), the students in my class were determined to eradicate the "librarian" stereotype. One of the problems with that was that many of us did wear glasses, had conservative hairstyles, and were fond of reading! On top of that, students in other programs would stop us in the university library and ask us for help. Go figure! (Maybe there is something inherently typical about librarians)

However, I discovered throughout my career that there is a vast diversity among librarians (of course). Some are avid outdoor people who run, go white water rafting, etc. Many are excellent cooks or wine gurus. Still others are globetrotters to exotic parts of the world. When I retired, people I had worked with for many years found out that I am a keen Formula One racing fan. So you can always find some unique interest or quirk for even those characters who may seem to be stereotypical.

Enjoyed your post today, Anne.

Karyn Good said...

Wonderful post today, Anne. You make many excellent points and I'm going to be busy keeping an eye out for any stereotypical characters I may have inadverently created.

Also, your post has made me think I need to add a few more interesting and unexpected quirks to a couple of main characters I'll be working with today :)

Anne Germaine said...

Great comments Helena. I think it is those unusual things (the paradoxes) that make people who at first glance fit into the stereo types the most interesting and dynamic. Because they are the unexpected.

Anne Germaine said...
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connie said...

Good topic!

I hadn't given it much thought as the characters in the books I have read on romantic medieval lairds have certain features in every one. It is something for me to watch out for now


Anne Germaine said...

Good luck with your writing Karyn!

Anne Germaine said...

Connie - yes, sometime we love the stereotypes!

Heather said...

I hadn't considered sterotypes in characters, yet I make a conscious effort to try different and interesting things. When i mentioned to people that I am a fencer, it stops them in their tracks. I could easily apply the same ideas to a character. Thanks.