I know you. You hate stereotypes in fiction.
That’s what I say too. Usually, it’s the truth.
The skinny heroine, the leading man who owns a mansion. The overbearing mother-in-law, the drunken stepfather. The husband who sleeps with his secretary, the strung-out rock star.
But I’ve come to realize that sometimes I find comfort in the stereotype. Some characters are not meant to stand out, but to fit in. Sometimes a character needs to say what is expected, do what is cliché. Every once in a while, vanilla is the right flavor.
And even though real people are as unique as their thumbprints, we don’t know them all well enough to see where they differ from “the norm.” We don’t know the quirks of everyone among our acquaintance, much less all those we have marginal contact with – and I’m pretty sure we don’t want to! (I think this is why complexity in every character can make a story feel just as contrived as those without any.)
So when do we use stereotype and when do we avoid it? To answer that question, we as writers must know our readers and understand our message.
For example, if I’m writing a romance novel, I probably don’t want to create a hero who lisps. Why? Fair or not, most readers of romance do not want to be bogged down with such a challenging detail in the personality of their hero. They want to focus on the obstacles a hero will overcome for or with his leading lady.
But can a hero lisp? Or stutter? Of course! Consider the script for The King’s Speech, written by David Seidler. Audiences were charmed by the strength demonstrated by a reluctant king in crisis. As he overcame his challenges, we found him extremely heroic. (And while The King’s Speech is not actually fiction, we have Seidler’s writing to thank for how historical events were presented to us.)
So whether you’re using stereotypes or avoiding them, write your characters deliberately and with forethought.
Here are my top ten favorite (and not so favorite) character stereotypes used in fiction:
10. ZOMBIES. The moaning, the leg-dragging, the flesh-eating – I just want to see a zombie who has something to say, one who rebels against typical zombie group think. Maybe a zombie who’s a bit of a picky eater.
9. TEENAGE GIRLS. Sullen, mom-hating, sarcastic liars – but, of course, secretly brilliant? I know, we all remember our teenage years as a snarled knot of hormonal hair, but can’t there be ANY teenage girls who are decent human beings? There has to be some middle ground between Cindy Brady and Avril Lavigne, right?
8. BLONDES. It doesn’t ALWAYS have to be the brunette who’s smart and the blonde who is dumb. Okay?
7. POLITICIANS/LAWYERS. I’ll admit it. This one’s a favorite. (If you’ve read DREAM OF ME, you know this.) Who can resist a dirty politician? And crooked lawyers? Come on! It’s one of the only stereotypes that’s hard to argue with. I’ll go so far as to say, if you’re going to write an honest politician or a decent lawyer, you’re going to have to be creative to be convincing.
6. REPAIRMEN. A sweaty mouth-breather without a belt or a sense of boundaries, right? Try again.
5. CEOs. It’s as difficult to write a decent CEO as it is to write an honest politician. The greed, the back stabbing, the palm greasing. But every company started out small. Wouldn’t you like to imagine one whose head honcho retained his integrity? I know I would.
4. MINORITIES. This one is touchy, I know. But be thoughtful and sensitive – especially with every race you can’t claim as your own. Not all Latinas are fiery, not all Asians graduate early. Black men were not all raised by single mothers in the inner city and Arabs are not universally plotting jihad. Conversely not all Irishmen are Catholic. Or drunks. And not every white person born in the south is a bigot.
3. ANGELS. They always seem so happy to be back among humans, like it’s a real treat. Really? Wouldn’t it feel more like if you were suddenly reduced to living like a cockroach for a while?
2. ABUSIVE HUSBANDS. Weird? Yeah. I’m not suggesting you make them likable. But they are not always sociopaths either: taking delight in their bad behaviors. (Yeah, I’ve written this guy too.) In reality, abusive men often believe they are really great guys. They either downplay their behavior (I didn’t push her that hard) or convince themselves that it is always someone else’s fault. That’s the kind of villain I love to hate.
1. PREACHERS. Unless you are reading or writing inspirational fiction, preachers are almost UNIVERSALLY panned as hypocrites, bigots, money-grubbing, sanctimonious cheats. I suspect that many writers feel completely justified doing this –that most who have included a preacher in their story crafted his faults with relish, believing – against evidence – that creating an honest preacher would be stereotypical. It’s not new, people. It’s been done to death since The Scarlett Letter. Find a new bad guy.
So what stereotypes make your list?