Who Says Stereotypes Are Bad?

November 21, 2009 at 4:45 am (Character, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , )


Well, I guess most people you talk to will tell you that stereotypes are bad.  Then again, I’m always reminded of a Dilbert comic by Scott Adams where he introduced a new female character.  Scott Adams wrote a note in one of his books that he was later inundated with emails telling him she was too stereotypical.  Now this is a female character who was extremely insecure, cracked under pressure and was personally insulted by anything a male said to her.  I find it odd that people found this character ‘too’ stereotypical.  I don’t know any women like this.  Certainly some share a little of one of her traits, but any person who acts like this character would be nearly impossible to deal with.

It was on reading about this situation Scott Adams found himself in that I realised there was no point in worrying if a character is a stereotype or not.  What one person sees as stereotypical, or ‘generalising’, or type casting, or whatever, can be taken an entirely different way by another.  You’re never going to please everyone so trying to create a totally new character that has no stereotypical attributes is a waste of time and next to impossible.

Instead of worrying about whether my characters are stereotypical I focus on whether they are believable.  I look at whether they are consistent.  I decide whether they are interesting.  These things matter far more than whatever label someone will later smear across them.

That said, stereotypes are good in that they allow you to create a diverse cast.  By creating simple labels (for much more complex and interesting characters) you can ensure that you have diversity and within the characters and that they will interact well (or at least in interesting ways).  Doing this also allows you to see the lack of realism in some of your choices.  A tom-boyish girl is not going to be best friends with the ballerina (unless there is a lot of history that is nicely explained as to the why).

3 things I try to remember:

1.  Stereotypes can give you a good starting point or an easy guide to work with.

2.  If your character never advances beyond a two-dimensional stereotype they are probably going to be boring anyway.

3.  Stereotypes exist for a reason, but they also need to be reimagined to keep originality and interest in a story.

What are your thoughts about stereotypes?

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13 Comments

  1. corra said,

    Stereotypes go hand-in-hand with voice. If you have a voice, the sterotype will be original.

  2. Andy Bodders said,

    I agree that stereotypes provide a rough model which can then be hewn into a real character. My greatest difficulty lies in stereotypes of learning disabilities. In one play I just completing, the hero might long ago have been called the village idiot. He is a hero in the play. But developing his character in a way that does not offend current (and correct) sensibilities about people with learning disabilities has been a struggle. It is too easy to fall back to stereotypical simplified, “idiotic” speech. I should mention that my character is defined by a 1960s pop song, therefore I have less scope that I would like to develop the character.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Using any minority group or disability is always wading into a minefield. Regardless of how how you go someone is going to throw flames at you for either misrepresenting or stereotyping the situation. All you can do is create the best character you can and stand by them. Thanks for the visit and wishing you luck with your writing.

  3. Elizabeth Spann Craig said,

    I like adding something original to a stereotype. Actually, I’ve got a post coming up on this very topic, soon! Like the Nosy Neighbor stereotype. It’s there for a reason…people know neighbors like this and can identify with it and mark the character as realistic. But we’ve still got to add bits to make the characters rounded.

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Can’t wait to read the post – and you are right about the nosy neighbour being someone most of can identify with. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Carol Kilgore said,

    I think the trick is starting with a stereotype and making it your own. If you have the Alpha Male Cop, then surprise people with his love of opera or Triple Skinny Latte habit and his two cats. That kind of thing.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      It is definitely the small details that make a character seem original. Thanks for visiting.

  5. j-a brock said,

    in some ways, stories are all about stereotypes. we just call them ‘archetypes’ instead! i think what avoids them being flat and 2-d is an understanding of the pscyhology of the character. if you take time to work that out, then they’ll be fully rounded.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I avoided using arcetypes because I teach and I am very used to blank stares – but you are right. Thanks for visiting and for your comment.

  6. Corra McFeydon said,

    I linked this post at my site today. I’m not sure why the pingback didn’t work…

    http://writary.wordpress.com/2009/11/23/weekly-wrap-up-november-23-2009/

    🙂

  7. ryan4143 said,

    I completely agree with you. Stereotypes are excellent for creating a solid foundation for a character, but they in no way should be the end of the road for creating a believable one. Otherwise they will appear too shallow to the reader and, as a result, destroy their interest in them. But for minor characters (or walk on characters, I should say), I believe that stereotypes in themselves will work just fine for the whole character because often readers want more in the major characters and not so much in the minor characters. A very interesting read. Thanks for posting.

  8. lawrenceez said,

    I don’t think stereotypes are bad. Most central characters in bestselling crime/thrillers are stereotypes….the FBI agent with post traumatic stress disorder, the bad cop…..Most characters I read about are pretty stereotypical most of the time.

    I think the main issue revolves around predicability and the character’s choices. Is the character likeable? Irritating? It’s the character that matters, not whether they’re sterotypical.

    Also, a writer should trust their instincts on a character and let the character in question develop.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Development is definitely important in characters and is what can make even the most stereotypical character interesting. Thanks for sharing.

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