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"
"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).