The Care, Feeding and Writing of Stereotypes.

Stereotypes are a tool of the writing craft.  They’re easy to use because you’re piggybacking on the culture, and you get to use the  unexplained, unspoken, untold to beef up your world without putting it all on the page.

We all use stereotypes, even the most creative of us. We use them because we have to.

Look, we’re not actually creating the world anew – just giving that impression.  We’re not describing everything, just saying enough that the person on the other end sees something.

When telling a story, we keep the camera firmly on the main characters, and the more creative of us (not by any means all of us) try to make our main characters complex, unique and “living.”  But out characters live in a world of other people.  And I can’t give each person who walks onto the page for ten seconds her own complex past.  I mean, if I say “The scullery maid brought her the letter” there is an image of a scullery maid in the regency in your mind, and it probably has been culled from a bunch of movies and plays many of them inaccurate.

However, if I have “The well-dressed, well scrubbed scullery maid brought her the letter.  Mary remembered this girl’s father was really a Latin instructor, who had fallen on evil times and whose daughter had to take a job in service.” The scullery maid BETTER have an important role in the plot.

And if I do that for every minor character, the reader is going to throw the book against the wall.  (Actually a tendency to do that to every character AND event is what makes my stories “soup” if I work at them too long.  I get tired of the stereotypes and start adding unique stuff, till the thread of the story is lost.

So stereotypes are a tool that way.  They’re also a tool in another way.

Take the words “French couturier” and I bet you there is an image in your mind, even if for some of you (yes, I know who you are.  I have my mind reading thingy on) it’s extremely politically incorrect.

Now say my character, thus occupied, is a short little balding man, who smokes cigars and pinches the butt of every woman who comes near enough.  Did your mind just explode?

That is a use of the stereotype too.  You counter it, and you make your work as memorable as possible.

The problem with stereotypes is that they’re not wholly yours.  They can’t be.  They are in the culture, very deep, and right now a lot of them are part of “what everybody knows” even though it is often wrong.

Take for instance the stereotype of a French Couturier.  It wouldn’t have shocked anyone even ninety years ago, when those tended to be heterosexual males (or females) with the sort of lifestyle you expect in artists.  The stereotype has changed (though not all the designers.)

Take the stereotype of the learned woman.  Early century she might be a suffragette (but not always.  There are far more suffragettes in modern romances than there ever were in Victorian days.)  But she would also probably be prudish to the point of celibacy, at least in her every day presentation…  Nowadays if you have a prudish female university professor, she’d better be working at a religious institution.  (Though they still exist and are usually feminists of the “all penetration is violation” stripe, but never mind.  That’s not the stereotype.)

One thing you should know is that stereotypes LAG.  I.e. if you’re writing about the suburbs what will ring true to people is the suburbs circa the sixties or seventies, not now with both parents working and a ton of latchkey kids.

The other thing to ask is “Who owns the stereotype.”  Some stereotypes, intentionally or not, have a whole agenda behind.  When you use the ninety pound woman who can punch a man flat, unless you’re using it in a throw away comedy scene (and you risk your reader not seeing it’s funny) you are in fact using a stereotype pushed on the storytelling field by people who don’t get strong women STILL don’t have the same upper body strength as strong men (and that most women who come close are NOT attractive in the traditional sense) and who perhaps confuse inner strength (I’ve known many strong women.  I was raised by two) and outer strength.

The importance of this is the treatment of homosexuals and homosexuality.  This has been brought up over at my blog, but you can observe it by yourself.  Read … even Christie.  Anyone from the early century.  You’ll find that homosexuals are untrustworthy, shifty, and “Most likely to be the murderer or traitor” TM.

You don’t need to read a lot of my stuff to know I don’t agree with that.  But the thing is, because most people then rarely met (that they knew) an homosexual, that became the accepted image.  I wonder how many completely harmless gay people read this and dug deeper into the closet and hid even from people who would have accepted them.

In the same way, right now the stereotype at least for gay men is vaguely sad and victimized, with a heart of gold and perhaps a killer fashion sense and also, of course, very liberal.  My friends who are gay and conservative get very annoyed by these.

[As they SHOULD be.  The achievement of equality is not to be canonized by political purposes, but to be treated as anyone else, with one different characteristic no one should care about that much.  (And we won’t go into religion here.  You’re welcome to preach to your gay friends.  BUT society as a whole shouldn’t care with whom they sleep or even with whom they make life contracts.  And – again, not going into that HERE – they don’t have the right to force CHURCHES to marry them.  Anymore than I do. [I’m sure LDS would refuse to bind Dan and I in celestial marriage, unless we converted first.  That’s fine.  Since we don’t/won’t convert, it doesn’t HURT us not to have what we don’t believe in.  As for gays who believe but whose churches won’t marry them: that’s for them to talk to their church about or form their own splinter group or whatever.  They still can’t legally force people to violate their religion conscience])]

Because they are a minority, even in these out of the closet days, few people (outside artistic fields) know enough gay people to have an idea of how they really are (or that they’re a variety as large as any other people.)  So the stereotypes influence how these people react to total strangers.

Which means stereotypes MATTER.  Be sure the ones you use do no harm.

And please, for the love of Bob (Heinlein) DO NOT make your main characters stereotypes.  Yes, I know, a lot of bestsellers do.  And if you use the stereotypes the gatekeepers confuse with the truth, it might bring you fame and glory – oh, and money.  But…

What it won’t do is make your work live.  If you haven’t yet, find Diana Wynne Jones “The Tough Guide To Fantasy Land” and avoid those clichés in your heroic fantasy.  Then avoid clichés in the rest of your stuff.

If your tough female fighter was once raped in a horrific scene, and because of that hates all men, except…

Stop, you’re in stereotype land.

The problem with stereotypes used like that isn’t even how often they’re wrong.

It’s that they’re boring.

And in story telling, boring is the ONLY capital crime.

9 comments

  1. And if you *must* break stereotype, you’ll be expected to explain why. I have a female MC whose reaction to having been abused was atypical, and the story kept getting rejected because “She wouldn’t act that way after an assault, she would be afraid of men.” I refused to change it, though!

    1. yes. They expect you to respect THEIR stereotypes. I got called xenophobic for writing Portugal as it was, 20 years ago. “It is clear you’ve never been out of the US” was how the letter started. Head>desk.

      1. And that from the same people who thought your biography was more important than your writing?

  2. Amen to this. I get really, really tired of reading the same character over and over when he/she/it/cabbage is featured in the work of 65465465465465456 authors.

  3. The Tough Guide the Fanstasyland is a WONDERFUL thing. I had a friend send me the British edition before it became available in the US.

    It sure did seem like the only thing to eat in Middle Earth was Stew.

  4. I worry about all my characters being the same. Well, within gender and age classes. Is Alice too much like Q? Maybe I need to emphasize the teen age rebellion in one and . . .

    Stereotypes can be fun to play with. Useful for shortening backstory, but they have to be individualized in the embroidery around the basic “Horse mad teenage girl” or “Weightlifting jock” are a place to start, but the more page time she or he gets, the deeper the details have to go.

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