Lately I have felt deluged with bad news stories about men and women. It seems every time I open a newspaper or turn on the television or even look at facebook, there is a story of men behaving badly toward women. It’s depressing and frightening.
So, the other day when I had to walk past several tables full of construction workers on my way to the coffee shop, I braced myself for an unpleasant time. I hate to admit it, but I was surprised when there were no cat calls or wolf whistles. I didn’t even overhear bad language. As I entered the shop, a man in steel-toed boots held the door for me. I said “thank you,” and he smiled and wished me a nice day.
That was all perfectly reasonable behaviour, behaviour I should expect from my fellowmen, so why was I surprised? Why did I feel it remarkable?
Because I’d fallen into the trap of stereotyping. It’s something we all do without thinking. A small boy in my area disappeared years ago. Reports said he might have been seen in a white van with rust spots. Even now, twenty years later, I notice white vans with rust spots and wonder if that could be the one.
As writers stereotyping can serve us well. We can use it as a kind of shorthand to convey character to the reader, especially if it’s a minor character. We’ll put a character in a hard-hat if we want the reader to know he’s strong, works outdoors, may be a little rough around the edges, is dependable. We’ll call someone a prom queen if we want to convey a character that’s self-absorbed, pretty, and shallow.
Stereotypes aren’t fair. The prom queen may have earned a full scholarship to university and the construction worker may teach ballroom dancing at night. But the stereotype is useful for the writer to convey a lot of information quickly.
A writer can also use stereotypes to surprise the reader and add depth to the story as well. In the two examples given above, we have the seeds for a rich, well-developed protagonist who will keep us reading just to find out what happens to him/her.
Note that stereotypes and archetypes are not the same thing. Archetypes, like the warrior, the nurturer, the adventurer, are what Carl Jung describes as “ancient patterns of personality that are the shared heritage of the human race.”
Stereotype is an oversimplified image of a person i.e. prom queen equals fluff. The story may begin with the stereotype but as we add layers we may discover our prom queen is a perfectionist. Never satisfied with her achievements, she chooses the hardest subjects to study, develops an eating disorder because her body is never perfect in her own eyes, has foresworn love because no one can live up to her version of perfect. This isn’t a fluffy airhead, this woman is tragic. But by standing the stereotype on its head, we’ve created a memorable character.
In real life, stereotyping people is unfair and may be dangerous. At its worst it leads to bigotry, xenophobia and racism.
In the writing life, it’s a useful tool,