Working the Stereotypes
Diversity’s the big issue in fiction these days.
Well, not really. The howling mobs of the perpetually offended only care about race and sex. Of the author, and of the characters.
True diversity of thoughts and emotions, behavior, opinions, and politics? The mob doesn’t seem to care. But most readers do. They don’t want every character to be the same, except for details of hair, eye, and skin color. A good story is the story of human interactions, even in a book full of running gunfights and explosions.
This can be a challenge for the writer. Do the exterior details match the mindset? Does the girl from Venezuela act like she’s escaped from a Communist Hellhole, or does she act just like her suburban gal Pal? If she does, you’ve probably got a problem that needs some research.
But if your gang of characters come from about the same environment, how do you make sure they are not too similar in actions and reactions?
That’s where stereotyping can be useful. Now, I have a SF series with some strong Fantasy elements, and I can get heavy-handed with stereotypes because of the rules of the universe. Mostly, you’ll want to be subtle.
Think of the stereotypes for guys:
The Jock, the Bad Boy, The Nerd . . .
Much too coarse a sorting, really. Think about it. The Jocks? Some think they walk on water and can get away with anything. They’re bullies, C students with a little help. Others are studious, and serious about the sports while keeping the grades up, nice guys. Some are risk takers, on and off the field.
The Bad Boys can be rich or poor, sexual predators, or dealing drugs in the boys room at the back of that hall over there. They can be narcissistic and spoiled. Dirt poor from a very broken family. Poor impulse control. Redeemable or irredeemable.
The Nerds? Which sort? Computers, Chess, D&D, nose-always-in-book? Highly intelligent? Preciously brilliant? Perfectly average?
That barely scratches the guys’ possibilities. The girls? Wow. From cheerleaders, to the smart girl who can’t get a date. Sluts, ice queens, trouble makers, the Popular Girls, and the Mean Girls.
There’s a million types. The above are “high school stereotypes.” Business, government, military will all have things we associate with the class. And that doesn’t even touch on politics. And as fast as politics are changing, avoiding anything but generalities might be wise.
The trick is to identify the stereotype, the subtype, and keep it in your head as you write. Even if the details never reach the page, your knowing these people will subtly slant the words as you type them.
The Coward will hesitate, then jump. Sweaty palms. Weak knees. The Bad Girl will look over the newly met stranger in a much different way than the overly sympathetic airhead.
Now, you can obviously go too far. The Computer Nerd or the Dumb Jock can be just as much a cardboard cutout as a plain vanilla nothing character. Don’t be too obvious about it, but think about how each of your characters is different. And then to break up the straight-from-the-box stereotype, perhaps give them something not usually associated with the type.
Make the shy computer nerd tall dark and handsome. Make the football star skinny, fast and agile. The snobby rich kid adopts every stray and injured animal that comes his way.
Yeah, done to death in the movies.
This is just a way to juice up a flat character. Shade in a little something to make him or her distinct from the rest.
If your Main Character is flat, you’ve got a major problem. The side kicks and companions, minor problem. The Villain? Probably a problem, depending on whether the Evil One gets much page time, especially as the POV.
If that’s your problem, analyze what stereotype would fit which character and if the story’s already written, how little touches of reactions, emotions and actions could be fit in. If it’s not written, think thorough the first scene with the Character being stereotypical and anti-typical. Over the top.
Now what if your characters already have plenty to make them stand out? Maybe too much. Think about stereotypes again, and see if perhaps you’ve over-done it. The MC can be larger than life, but the others shouldn’t out shine him or her.
Look through your WIP and see if there are stereotypes. And if they work.
Here’s a story start with a probable overdose of stereotypes. Does it work? Only way to find out is to finish the book and kick it out the door.
Adrasos ran up the steps and burst through the entrance.
“What have you done?” His voice was tight with rage, shaking with fury.
His stepfather looked up with a sneer. “Something that took more nerve than you’ll ever have you pathetic little tin soldier.” He had the sapphire pectoral on the table before him, defiling the God’s jewelry with his soft manicured hands. “Get out. Yainni, throw him out.”
Poor Yainni hesitated. Not as dumb as he used to be, he understood how his residency here depended on the old man’s charity, and the old man doted on his thieving son-in-law. Adrasos turned and stalked past Yainni and the big man followed in his wake. No small coat in the hallway. Peep isn’t home. Adrasos walked out the big double doors. Magnificent, once, flaking paint and warped, now.
Adrasos stepped to the side. There were a few things he could do to minimize the horrors that were about to happen. Starting with Yainni.
He pull out his coin bag and dumped part of it into his hand, held it out to the looming hulk. Poor Yainni. Not a mean bone in his oversized body. The Imperial Guards would see only a threat, to be dealt with as permanently and quickly as possible. “Wine. I’m going to need a whole lot of wine to drown this. Go down to Michan’s they’re cheaper. Get as much red wine as that will buy.”
The big man took it, and trotted happily away. It was his kind of errand.
Stomp and thud behind him.
“Boy, you should be learning things from your stepfather, not fighting with him all the time. He’s the cleverest thief in all of Minos. He’ll bring our family back into money and social prominence.”
“Better that Mother had never laid eyes on him.”
His mother’s father reached out and slapped him.
“You think because the God King favors you, you’re anything but a fancy dressed version of our household guards?”
“He seduced the former queen and stole her jewelry. For that he has condemned the entire household.”
“Only if you talk, boy!”
Adrasos looked at him in disbelief. “How do you think I know! She went to her former husband and confessed her sin, and then mentioned the missing jewelry. I was on duty, and hoped it was some other slick con artist who had wormed his way into her boudoir.” He looked around and heaved a sigh of relief. Parthenope trotted around the side of the house. His youngest sister. Half-sister. He wished she didn’t look so much like the pretty boy seducer.
“Dras! You’re home! Why? Look, I got some flowers for Mama.”
“Peep, your papa’s done something really bad, and . . . ”
Time had run out. The Ekasi had given him a few minutes to remove the littlest and most innocent. With her beside him, the guards were moving in.
He knocked his grandfather flat, grabbed his collar, grabbed Peep’s arm and hauled them down the steps and to the side. The guards charged in. Yainni had not even shut the doors, let alone locked or barred them. Screams and crashes rose behind him.
His grandfather started cursing as well, as he was dragged further away from his ancestral home. Peep was wiggling and trying to twist away, Adrasos couldn’t deal with them both. He heaved the furious and flailing old man into the arms of his cronies, crowding up to see the excitement.
He picked Peep up and carried her down the street, down to the little plaza where they couldn’t hear the screams.
So there’s the Hero, the Big Dumb Sidekick, the Worthless Stepfather, the Grumpy Old Man, and the Cute Kid.
Get enough story and action in there and it might not be too obvious.
If you’ve got a character problem, post a snippet, and we’ll all have a go at it.