Tuesday, April 3, 2012

TUESDAY TIPS AND TIDBITS – Moving Beyond Stereotypes


We all know what STEREOTYPE means, right? This definition from dictionary.com sums it up: A simplified and standardized conception or image invested with special meaning and held in common by members of a group: The cowboy and Indian are American stereotypes.

Note the key words in this definition. A stereotype is SIMPLIFIED. It is a STANDARDIZED CONCEPT. It holds special meaning to members of a GROUP or subset of the population. So this inherently means that a stereotype may not be recognized by everyone, but it will be recognized by a specific group of people with shared or similar experience or ideology.

We all know some examples of stereotypes used in storytelling (novels, movies, short stories, comics, and so forth). A few come to mind ... the hooker with a heart of gold, the mustache-twirling villain epitomized by cartoon character, Snidely Whiplash, the greasy drug dealer, the perennial dumb blonde girlfriend, the rich old lady with the small yappy dog. There are many others, but this is sufficient to get the idea across. Again, note that these stereotypes mentioned may be quite familiar to certain populations in Americas, but to others they may not.


So, what’s wrong with using stereotypes for characters in your books? They’re easily recognized by almost every reader you may be targeting, and pulling a ready-made character out of the writing grab-bag would save you tons of work character-building.

For one thing, stereotype characters are standardized by definition and are therefore one-dimensional – one size fits all. The hooker with the heart of gold could be literally any hooker in any city, but that stereotypical hooker wouldn’t be unique to your story. Likewise, while your drug dealer in your book may be smart and cunning, the stereotypical drug dealer to many readers may just be some soulless creep who frequents street corners, waiting to sell to anybody. Maybe the drug dealer in your book is more like Breaking Bad – a dad with cancer and a chip on his shoulder who’s going for broke to save his family from financial downfall. That’s certainly not a typical drug dealer – or what many of us may think is typical. And what may be stereotypical to me may not be to the next reader. So you may not know what you’re suggesting to your readers when you don’t know for sure who all your readers are. That’s another good reason to make your characters unique and not stereotypical.

Putting a cardboard cutout character in your book and not ‘filling out’ the details is like giving your reader a brief introduction of your character with a name and a handshake. “Hi, dear reader, this is my villain, Stefan. He’s an Eastern-European maniac who has not one ounce of decency flowing through his black veins. He’s set on destroying the world, and only my hero can stop him.” Stefan is a stereotype you’ve personalized with a name, and that’s all the information you give the reader about your character, except perhaps for a few scenes of mustache-twirling punctuated with evil laughter. This kind of character is just a place-holder waiting for a real character to appear and take over in the story.

The problem arises precisely because everyone’s familiar with stereotypes. It’s like filling up your writing with cliché phrases. His hair was black as coal. Unless HE (your character) is a coal miner (and especially if he is a coal miner), you should not use this cliché phrase to describe your character. Why? Well, who handles coal anymore on an everyday basis except for people who work at a power plant? Coal is not the first thing that comes to mind as something that is thoroughly black, but the phrase, ‘black as coal’ is still familiar because it has been used so many times for so many years that it is absolutely not original. And using it is just borrowing. When a reader finds your story full of borrowed and reused phrases, ideas, and characters, the reader’s going to start wondering why she should even bother reading your story. It will be just like reading other stories she’s already read that were perhaps a lot more original in execution. If a one-dimensional stereotype character is not fleshed out with background and motivation, that character will not seem real, no matter how many times the mustache gets twirled. And reading about a one-dimensional character like that will simply be a waste of time for the reader.


Many times, stereotype characters are used as a source of derogatory humor. The dumb blonde joke, the Polack joke – how many Polacks does it take to screw in a lightbulb? The fat lady shopper at Walmart, the redneck do-it-yourselfer (famous last words before dying from self-inflicted stupidity – ‘Hey, y’all, watch this!’). Illegal immigrants, homeless people, poor people, rich people, obese people, cuckolded husbands, handicapped people ... the list goes on and on. If you’re not of Polish descent, if you’re not a natural blonde, if you’re not a native of Tennessee, if you’re not a divorced middle-aged woman, if you’re not handicapped, then many of these ‘humorous’ references may seem funny. But what if you don’t fit in with a group that thinks some stereotypical derogatory reference is funny?

Humor is in the eye of the beholder, so to speak, (yes, a cliché), because everyone’s background and experiences and personal situation is different. So, what may seem hilarious to one person may actually be quite offensive to another, and treading the PC (politically correct) line can be treacherous if writing humor depends on making fun of a specific class of stereotypes. If you’re writing for an audience that will appreciate your brand of humor and the subject matter, then perhaps all’s well. But what happens when someone not in your target audience happens to read your book? It’s a given they won’t like it.

For instance, stand-up comedian/ventriloquist Jeff Dunham has a routine with a skeletal dummy called Achmed who is a deceased terrorist. He gets a lot of applause from his terrorist jokes, but I’ll bet you won’t find any people of Middle-Eastern descent in his audience who are laughing. Terrorists are stereotyped by the events of the current time. Before Muslim extremists became the villain in every derogatory joke or fiction thriller, it was Russian extremists, or German, or ... well, you get the idea.

Every writer has to ask himself if using crutches like poking fun at stereotypes is worth alienating a good portion of his potential reading audience just for a laugh. As a writer, you may think it is perfectly fine, but as a person, do you have to bother caring whether you alienate a selected portion your potential readership? Most humor writers write what appeals to them personally ... what fits their experiences and knowledge base and personal attitudes. Some writers even have an ax to grind (yes, another cliché phrase) in regard to specific portions of the population based on stereotypical (and perhaps bigoted) criteria. If enough other people share the writer’s attitudes, then the writer will attract an audience with his work. And if the purpose is to cater to that audience that shares his attitudes, then no, he’s probably not going to care about the rest of the people out there who won’t like his work because their demographic is portrayed unkindly within the work. In this instance the writer is writing specifically for his chosen market and ignoring everyone else. This writer will certainly have to weather the inevitable storm of naysayers who find his work offensive. Only a writer with a thick skin and an attitude of ‘I don’t care’ will succeed with polarized writing that makes fun of stereotypes or incorporates them in his writing in a way that is derogatory or portrays them negatively.


Another problem with using stereotypes based on racial, ethnic, or appearance criteria, is to automatically assume that a certain segment of the population will invariably be involved in certain nefarious activities because of the racial, ethnic, or appearance criteria. This is what is commonly referred to as PROFILING. For instance, the writer who always makes his criminals black or Hispanic without considering that lower-income whites can also be effective criminals is profiling a stereotypical character archetype by racial criteria.

Law enforcement is often accused of profiling by automatically arresting someone of a racial or ethnic background with the assumption they are more likely to be guilty of a crime – any crime. The reverse assumption is that other races that are not targeted are being showed preferential treatment by not being harassed with routine traffic stops or arrests on suspicion.

In writing, it is common and even expected that the author will write about characters he/she is familiar with. Sometimes that includes racial assumptions based on the writer’s personal experience or collective knowledge. For instance, a black writer may write about all whites as uncaring or evil capitalists who live privileged lives, simply because that particular writer came from a background where that situation was a reality for him. And conversely, a Caucasian upper-class writer may portray gardeners and maids and other service people as Hispanic because he came from a situation where such service people were predominantly Hispanic due to income levels and job availability. But that certainly doesn’t mean that a Hispanic lawyer cannot have a fine house for his family in a gated community, or a black doctor cannot have a white person as his children’s nanny.


Try avoiding stereotypical thinking by mixing it up in your writing to deliver the unexpected for your readers. It will be a refreshing change and give you an opportunity to personalize your characters for the reader. The best way to avoid using stereotypes is to be able to recognize when your characters are stereotypical. Analyze your characters and ask yourself some key questions as you do so.

Do you know why your villain wants to destroy the world? No? Then maybe you don’t have enough background established for him or her not to be a cardboard cutout. It is usually not enough to say ‘he is evil.’ A villain that has real aspirations – and perhaps had those aspirations ruined by the hero – will have a real grudge to bear. That will give your villain motivation for doing bad things to the hero. If your villain does peculiar or perverse things, there should be an explanation for why he does these things. Maybe this is part of the unfolding mystery of your fiction tale, but it should be explained at some point so that the reader gets a well-rounded view of your villain – nearly as detailed as your hero.

Do you know why your hero is risking his life to beat the villain? ‘Because he is a good guy’ is not an adequate reason. You have to show your readers why he would do what he does in the story. A hero who is simply a victim of circumstance is not much of a hero at all – unless he has the guts and motivation to rise above circumstance, take the bull by the horns (OK, sorry, another cliché), and face the villain head-on.

Writers who blatantly fill their work with folly such as overused stereotypical characters, cliché phrasing, and mundane dialog will quickly be labeled as lazy and laughable. What writer wants that reputation? To avoid that, you must add depth and meaning to your dialog, to your character development, and to the scenes in which your characters interact.

Obviously these examples don’t cover every story situation, but hopefully you get the idea from this that you just can’t pick the first idea that comes to you when designing a well-crafted story with well-rounded characters. You should really put some thought into your characters and their motivations and backgrounds. Once you do this, you can rest assured that your characters will be far more than cardboard cutouts in your story.

–Patricia Morrison, Penumbra Publishing


Natasha Larry said...

LOL! Oh, wow. When I got to the Jeff Dunham thing, I laughed out loud. ;) Otherwise, this is all really great advice. I haven't run into much fiction, other than, of course, where it was intentional for historical accuracy, that has used stereotypes.

This is one of those things I wouldn't have thought of when writing fiction. Thanks for sharing.

Penumbra Publishing said...

Thanks, Natasha. I must confess that I am as guilty of laughing at sterotypical jokes as anyone else, but it deserves consideration, especially when writing humor.


Walter Knight said...

An interesting writing technique is to not describe your characters' appearance or race, and let the readers use their own sterotypes and perceptions to fill in the gaps on who your characters are.

Natasha Larry said...

That's a neat idea, Walter, and again, something I would have never even thought of. =) I find that a lot of my readers decide what race my characters are, no matter what I have to say about it, lol. A lot of people have told me that John Gramm is African American, which I find interesting =)

Charles O'Keefe said...

Hi Pat, Tasha and Walter (and whomever else is reading this :) Excellent post as always. I agree you have to be careful with stereotypes, as you say you could not only offend readers it is lazy writing. I tried to avoid them in my book. As you point out it can be tricky because I think sometimes people use them unitentionally because of the place/time/people they have grown up with but that's not excuse.

I also agree villians need to be fleshed out (unless they will die very quickly) otherwise they are hollow. (Pat gave me some great advice for certain vampire villians :) Thanks for the helpful advice.