Tuesday, April 6, 2010

White Men Can't Jump, and Women Can't Drive

Mexicans are lazy, but they're good for manual labor.
Asians are short and unathletic, but smarter than everyone else.
Jews are good with money, Catholic priests with little boys.
Once you go black, you'll never go back.
All black, Asian, (fill in ethnicity of choice) people look the same.
Blondes really are dumber than brunettes (full disclosure: I count myself as a blonde, despite my wife's protestations).
Engineers are dorks (despite my degree, I do not count myself as an Engineer :).
Women suck at math, but are good for babies
Men suck at romance, but are good for heavy lifting
Something about hoop earrings :)

Most of these stereotypes are fairly mundane (and you can probably think of far worse ones), but odds are at least one would draw a reaction if voiced aloud with serious measure. For the most part, in civilized company, we're gonna be appalled by stereotypes, but when we dig deep into ourselves, most  will tend to have at least one or two ingrained beliefs that are stereotypical (that being said, not all stereotypes are necessarily bad, though they can be construed as such - e.g., a man's belief that women need to be protected).

What's the point? Strong reaction, in general, equals conflict, and conflict is what makes the story go according to those in the know. Now, having your characters express outright a certain stereotype, or describing them in such a way to fit them to a stereotype (e.g., a black guy with low slung jeans, a sideways Yankees cap, tats, and bling... lots of bling) to create conflict are what I call your sugar conflicts - ultimately, they may taste better in the beginning and we might like to fill our plates with them, but they don't bring as much to the table as the complex carb conflicts.

Why? Because people aren't stereotypes. Superficially they may seem that way, but once we get past the surface, there's gotta be more. Your characters will believe certain stereotypes, and this can be a strong source of conflict for a story, but it will rarely be overt or even consciously known. Give your readers some sugary 2D side characters, for sure, but keep them healthy with the ones who are stereotyping you behind your backs (Pride and Prejudice leaps to mind).


Stephanie Damore said...

"Oh not you didn't"

Ha, J/K. I really liked this post because it's true. Stereotypical characters are too cookie cutter and people aren't cookies. Stereotypes can help readers relate, but characters have to go deeper than that.

Matthew Delman said...

The song "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" from Avenue Q pops into my head every time I talk about stereotypes.

Sometimes they're useful though -- if for no other reason than to add another layer of believability to your story.

Also: Darn you Steph! Now I want cookies!

L. T. Host said...

Stereotypes are such a touchy topic. I always never mean to offend anyone and always put my foot in my mouth anyway, so I'll just get it over with.

Open mouth, insert foot.

And yes, there is always much more to someone than their outside. It's a favorite of mine when writers paint someone as a stereotype and have them be the exact opposite as expected.

Voidwalker said...

It has been said that Stereotypes are 'exagerated truths.'

I would have to agree with that statement.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I'm not a fan of stereotypes in every day life, but they're fun to play with while writing. I like to twist them on their ear once in a while. Of course, I'm dealing with people 3,500 years ago so a lot of the modern stereotypes aren't there.

Josin L. McQuein said...


A while back, I got an e-mail from a supposedly intelligent person listing "10 things your burglar won't tell you". Most of these revolved around "proof" that day laborers, gardeners, cleaners, sanitation crews, maintenance crews, etc. only took those kinds of jobs to case residences for later theft... not to mention that they all "really" speak perfect English when they choose to.

Annoying was the most polite adjective that came to mind over that one.

Sadly, I've found that in fiction, if a character of a particular ethnicity isn't at least a little stereotypical, either the reader will say it's "unrealistic", that the character in question is "self-hating" since they don't act right, or they assume the character is a WASP.

Unknown said...

Sterotypes are fun to mess with. I currently have a character who I was having problems "finding". But after I threw in a sterotype and then took the opposite approach to that sterotype the fit was perfect. Love the post...

Susan R. Mills said...

A stereotypical character who behaves the exact opposite of what's expected can make for a pretty darn interesting character.

Jemi Fraser said...

I've got a character in my ms who thinks in stereotypes at the beginning and it's fun watching his assumptions get run over through the book :)