Updated: Oct 17, 2020
I can already hear the writing police scream “no!” from the rooftops. It is a conversation I have come across many-a-time online and the jury generally agree that writing stereotypical characters is guilty of being, well, criminal.
With the current storm raging around the novel American Dirt, and as a subject I’ve always thought I must blog about but haven’t yet got around to it, it seemed a good time to unpick this topic and put it under the microscope. Let me add, I have not read American Dirt, so this post does not propose any judgement call on the rights or wrongs of the work.
Are stereotypes really banished from fiction, or are we, as a community, falling into rhetoric automatically and devaluing – or allowing that rhetoric to blindside us completely – the worth of what some stereotyping can lend to our stories?
Let’s first start with what a stereotype is and why it’s considered a problem.
noun: stereotype; plural noun: stereotypes
a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.
"the stereotype of the woman as the carer"
a person or thing that conforms to a widely held but oversimplified image of the class or type to which they belong.
"don't treat anyone as a stereotype"
a relief printing plate cast in a mould made from composed type or an original plate.
Okay, so we can safely say we are not referring to the last definition there, but you can see that the word ‘cliché’ falls within the definition and, for a writer, that is the worst crime they could commit. No jury required: reserve a seat on death row.
So, stereotypes are reductive. They are generally used to refer to types of groups of people so we can talk about them as a collective. Often, this ends up in the derogatory. That is when prejudice becomes mixed up in stereotyping, of course, and it could be argued that all stereotyping contains a certain amount of prejudice, even if that prejudice is a positive discrimination.
It’s pretty safe to assume that all of us can be reduced to some sort of stereotype. We can all be boiled down to two-dimensional entities. And this is part of the problem when writing fiction because we must strive to create multidimensional figures in our stories. Our job, as fiction authors, is to expand our characters and their horizons –the total opposite to what a stereotype does – not minimise them.
Or is it?
Do we actually need to expand on all our characters, or do stereotypes have a role to play? If any of you have tackled character creation and put in a lot of effort in making them seem as real as possible, you’ll understand just how much of your resources go into that exercise. And it is not restricted to just a single character but other major characters and the villain of the piece, too. It’s pretty exhausting. Yet, many writers do not understand the role that flat, stereotypical characters have to play in storytelling (usually, the more minor characters). You can read more about what a flat character is here, and what they lend to a story.
And yet, even in main characters, stereotypes are everywhere – the mod, the rocker, the 2.4 kids picket fence, the mother, father, teen. Many figures may start out as stereotypes at the beginning but what alleviates them from that caricature is the transition they go through in response to the story events, the growth they experience enabling them to arrive at the other end a significantly changed creature. Not convinced? Let’s look at some examples.
The troubled detective with alcohol issues, who works late all the time because of his broken family relationships and who has a resistance to authority. (Plenty of novels have sold with that premise for the main character. Doesn’t seem to bore people)
The level-headed, smooth, hard-as-nails (ex) government agent/soldier/spy who always gets his villain in the end.
The couple who can’t stand one another to begin with but end up falling in love. Usually, a heterosexual relationship when the male is rich, arrogant, inaccessible (until the heroine arrives to turn his apple cart upside down).
The pure-hearted hero on a quest who is the ‘chosen one’.
Now, maybe you are someone whose lip curls at such tried and tested formulas, but there’s still no denying that audiences exist for these familiar constructs. People still buy into these types of stereotypical characters and tropes. And yet, there must also be elements that make these stories unique in themselves so that they do not seem completely cardboard and copied.
To go further still, in regards to the concept of the elevator pitch (I.E. if you were in an elevator – or a lift – with a publisher or publishing agent (or film producer), you have thirty seconds to pitch your book and hook their interest), the consensus of starting the pitch with ‘he’s a stereotypical <<teen…>>’ is viewed as the direct route to failure – who wants to read stereotypes? What makes your character stand out from the rest? But what if that pitch sounded something like this:
He’s a stereotypical eighties teen whose scientist best friend just turned a DeLorean into a time machine. When his friend is killed in front of him, his only escape is in the DeLorean, propelling him back to 1955 and colliding with the path to his parents’ first kiss, where he must reset the natural order of events before his own existence, and the universe as he knows it, is erased from history.
OK, I’m using film for the purpose of an example, but the principle is the same. In Back to the Future, Marty is a stereotypical teen, but guess what that does as far as the audience is concerned? It enables them to identify with him. He’s not carved out as anything out of the ordinary, or too quirky or weird or eccentric or anything that might ostracise. He’s your standard (stereotypical for the era) kid with a skateboard who everyone likes. The film was marketed to teens and youngsters, and they are at a stage in life where identity is everything – they all want is to fit in with one another. Seeing themselves in that film going on an exciting (and hilarious) adventure into the past is key to its popularity. Also, by taking a stereotype and plonking him thirty years into the past provided some good gags through the differences in pop culture of both time periods.
So, was using a stereotype a mistake in this instance? Was it cliché? The lesson with all the examples so far is: know your audience and know when/if a stereotype can work in your genre. It’s almost expected in some genres.
So, what about American Dirt? From what I can tell, this doesn’t fall under the spectrum of any of the above, but it’s the author’s third novel, I believe. At least, her third published novel. Who knows how many she wrote before she finally broke through? This suggests to me – I hope! – she should have some idea what she’s doing. So, this choice to stereotype may well have been deliberate, for some reason. Again, pulling away from that specific book, what purpose might an author have for using a stereotype?
It’s worth acknowledging that stereotypes come with some inbuilt assumptions that you can rely on pretty much every reader to make. In reality, this helps cover some ground when it comes to characterisation because you can presume the reader will assume to know certain things about the character already, so you might not need to spend quite so much time writing those things. For instance:
Football/soccer mum. Assumption: Married, lives in suburbia, probably middle class, stay at home mother.
WAG – high maintenance wife or girlfriend of a football player, a trophy wife (a stereotype within a stereotype), lots of makeup, manicure talons, heels, short skirts, big boobs, etc. Probably had plastic surgery.
But the other thing a stereotype does within a reader is to trigger their prejudices without them even realising it, and you can play on that. Let’s say we have a murder mystery in a town full of rednecks. The victim is black. Instant assumption: the rednecks did it. You are at liberty to play on that assumption to lead the reader into a red herring and twist it around as and when you wish.
Or maybe you have a high-earning city worker. The assumption is that he’s materialistic, egotistic and avaricious. He goes to the strip clubs with the boys after work, in true Wolf of Wall Street style, and sniffs coke in the toilet. Someone is stealing money from his company and all fingers point to another stereotype – the office justice warrior. But what if our city guy is a Robin Hood in disguise? What if it turns out to be HIM stealing and he’s stealing from the rich to give to the poor? Would that make a change from the all-too-familiar real-life scenario we often hear about where people in power commit corporate fraud purely out of greed?
Take the soccer mum stereotype. What if her husband died and, in order to continue supporting her kids, giving them a good education and living their life, she turned to drug dealing because, otherwise, she couldn’t earn enough money? (Yes, this is roughly a premise already used in the TV series Weeds, though I haven’t watched it.) In this instance, not only does it provide a twist on a stereotype, it pushes them into conflict with everything they have thus believed in life: raising your kids in a clean and honest lifestyle, keeping them away from drugs and bad influences, etc., etc. With a direct clash of worlds such as this, all sorts of problems and situations that need resolving will arise (and as storytelling is in the business of resolving things, this creates plenty of plot and complexity – yes, I said complexity. Who would think to link that with stereotyping?)
Quinten Tarrantino has a tendency to use stereotypes and twist them in his films. Not just characters, but tropes, too:
Pulp Fiction – starts from the POV of two henchmen. Henchmen never usually get such high billing and are instead background characters reduced to mindless thugs. PF presents us with two characters who are not simply mindless killers but articulate, thoughtful assassins.
Django - this seems at the outset to be another typical story of a black man subjected to slavery in the American south in the nineteenth century. Tarrantino turns the stereotypical character about on its head and deliberately so.
Inglorious Besterds – starts out as a seemingly typical second world war scenario where helpless Jews are being rooted out from hiding in cellars. But it turns into a full-on resistance plot by the Jewish instead, arming them and making them formidable adversaries against the Nazis (a more preferable, if not true, history).
All these characters we have so far considered have started off as stereotypical figures, but it is through the expansion of them within the author’s imagination during the course of the story that renders them no longer reduced, simplistic figures.
Other than twisting expectation, are there other reasons an author might wish to stereotype?
Again, we turn to Tarrantino here. In a screenwriting class I once took, they mentioned one of his techniques is to present us with caricature figures as a deliberate prevention of the viewer becoming too connected with the characters so that the viewing experience is more objective than subjective. This isn’t the first time I have heard this, but in the past it has always been in respect of novel writing and for the purpose of highlighting the wider themes. With this in mind, we should also ask: are the stereotypes deliberate for the purpose of:
So, tell me, if you believed at the beginning of this post that there is no place ever in fiction for stereotypes, do you still hold to that now?
As for American Dirt, I have no personal experience of it, but this article does a great job of what can be wrong with stereotyping characters and sheds some light on one side of the debate and why the book has been slighted so badly. Ultimately, it seems the book’s biggest crime is poor writing. And I’m afraid I have no legal argument on why you should ever get a queen’s pardon on that in your published story.
Here, however, the jury is still out. I’ll have to go and read it myself before making a judgement call and maybe I can return to this post with my own verdict.