Tag: stereotypes

Stock Characters–Good or Bad?

One of the joys of being a writer is the excuse to people-watch. Where others might be considered nosy, we writers are doing “research.”

I came upon a piece of serendipity research the other day. Two older ladies were having lunch at a table close to mine. I found myself smiling at the sight of them. Both wore modest blouses and skirts– hemlines on the longish side–and flat shoes. Their grey hair was worn in a bun and their faces had only a little powder as a finishing touch. They looked perfect. They seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place them, until it came to me. They were archetypes of the Miss Marple variety. In fact, either of them could have stepped into the Joan Hickson role without a ripple.

Across the room was another woman or a similar age, but very different appearance. Long blonde hair curled over her shoulders. False lashes, foundation, rouge, highlighter, mascara, heavy eyeliner and bright lipstick accented her features. Her blouse was low-cut and she cast flirtatious glances at her male companion.  She reminded me a bit of “our Rose” on “Keeping Up Appearances.”

Then at an outdoor concert, I encountered yet another prototype–this time of the patrician lady. Again she was older, white hair swept into a French roll, erect carriage, well-cut clothes, even if they were just slacks and a sweater, high cheekbones, small chin. Once more I felt as though I recognized her, even though I hadn’t. She could have played the dowager countess on any number of period plays.

As writers, we want to create unique, memorable characters, but as I considered these women, I wondered about the usefulness of stock characters. Should an author keep a number of these prototypes in her tool box? I don’t call them stereotypes because that implies a flat personality as well as a recognizable appearance. My dowager countess could be kind, or critical, generous or mean. My ‘Miss Marple’ could be nosy and nasty, or she could be knowledgeable and helpful. Just because she sports a certain look, doesn’t mean her character is uninteresting.

The fact that I felt a recognition for these strangers, suggests to me that readers might relate to characters they feel they already know. Or maybe I just watch too much British television. What do you think? Do you enjoy recognizable types of characters in a novel or does their appearance make you toss it aside as too predictable?

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Lessons in Stereotyping

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,

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