The Use and Misuse of Stereotypes
While writing the recent set of capsule reviews for anime I've watched but haven't yet blogged about, it dawned on me that I kept repeating "stereotypical characters" a great deal. While writing the review of "Oniai", that realization made me stop to ask what exactly I meant by that, raising in turn more questions. What is a stereotype? Are they all necessarily bad? Can they serve some valid purpose?
Let's start with the definition found in the Oxford Dictionary: "a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing". The word itself, "stereotype", conjures the image of something printed or etched (the word originated in 1798 to describe a printing plate that duplicated any typography) . Most writers are told to avoid stereotypes because their use indicates a poverty of imagination or else hackneyed writing. Stereotypes is an easy way to create characters because writing rounded, believable characters is hard, probably one of the hardest tasks any writer faces.
The chief problem with stereotypes lies in the way it reduces and generalizes. With a stereotype, a character becomes the sum of one or a few readily identifiable traits or assumptions about that type of character, whether it is based in race, sex, nationality, religion, or occupation. A person or character becomes a thing, a caricature or a silhouette, not something modeled in three dimensions and often not even two. Stereotypes frequently include making value judgments about those traits or types. There can be a moral dimension to stereotyping many overlook, especially when dealing with race or gender issues. Stereotypes can reinforce preexisting assumptions or prejudices, another reason to be leery of them. The single greatest reason to avoid stereotypes is that real people seldom, if ever, truly fall into any stereotype because each person is a mix of traits, outlooks, personality quirks, beliefs, vices, and virtues. Stereotypes may be true on a broad brushstroke level -- if there wasn't some element of truth to them stereotypes would never be as long-lived as they are -- and utterly wrong on the granular or individual level.
I am reminded of the classic "no true Scotsman" fallacy. It goes something like this: No Scotsman would do X. A Scotsman says he does X. The reply is "then you are no true Scotsman". Stereotypes can work in much the same fashion, which is why they are dangerous when misused. When people reduce others to a simplistic generalizations, they can blind themselves to any actions by those others that do not fit their preconceived notions. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy -- or perhaps false prophecy because it derives from an intentional misreading.
Stereotypes pop up the most in genre fiction. For example, comedies use stereotypes for humor, playing on audience expectations. In action/adventure and science fiction/fantasy, you see stereotypes more often than usual in other genres, mostly I think because the authors make the call that the readers or viewers will relate more to a stereotyped character with easily understood traits than a more complex character when the rest of the novel, movie, or TV show is filled with explosions, car chases, spaceships, future landscapes, and medieval castles and dragons. In those instances, the background becomes the character, not the people, so the substitution of a shorthand cipher for a real person makes a certain kind of logic. A stereotype is the one thing, whether cultural or societal, that everyone will understand because it is a shared image. Think of the rhythm for "shave and a hair cut two bits". Most Americans know it almost by osmosis, which is why U.S. prisoners in Viet Nam used it to authenticate each other when using Morse code between their cells. Their Vietnamese captors could not copy it. The music and rhythm wasn't ingrained in their culture. Stereotypes can be the same and equally automatic.
Aside from the problems listed above, one asks why use them. Clever authors use stereotypes to confound audience expectations by subverting the stereotype. Handled right, it can be a great tactic when not overused. Or they might use stereotypes to hold up a mirror to audience expectations so readers and viewers can confront their preconceptions and biases. I admit these are difficult things to attempt and do well, one reason you don't see it very often. So social commentary and comedy can be valid uses of stereotypes. Just read the Wooster and Jeeves novels to see what effective use a good writer can make of this. Or consider the fool from Shakespeare's "King Lear". Without the fool and his stereotypical behavior serving as counterpoint, King Lear's griefs and tragedies would never attain the poignancy they do.
Authors default to stereotypes for different reasons. Comic relief, to sketch out minor or secondary characters with a short or limited life, a desire to give the audience what the author thinks they want, to associate a character with a particular idea or trait. or simple laziness. Often stereotypes serve as background noise. The intent is to make the audience focus on the main character or main event. This is not always intentional. It can happen when the author let their minds work on autopilot. I've been guilty of it myself, seeing it in my stories only in hindsight. It can be difficult for authors to realize they've created a stereotype, unless a good reader or editor points it out to them. Other factors can come into play. In the old pulp novels, because the authors wrote at speed under severe time pressure, turning out a full length novel of between fifty to eighty thousand words every month, something gets left in the trash bin. That is why perhaps pulp novels relied so heavily on stereotypes and archetypes, unwittingly continuing and spreading conventions dating back to the 19th century dime novel era. As an example, read "The Virginian" by Owen Wister. Many of the conventions and stereotypes you see in a Western movie or read in a Western novel has its genesis in that 1902 novel.
Which brings us to a curious progression. "The Virginian" featured a slew of novel ideas that other writers picked up on. The original and fresh ideas became tropes. When overused or used badly, the tropes devolved to cliches. The cliches in turn created a set of ideas, almost a template, that when combined become the elements of a stereotype. What is new and original today can, in time, become the stereotype or cliche of tomorrow. Attentive readers may note that when I speak of stereotypes, I do not limit myself to descriptions of people, though that is the main thrust of the essay. Stereotypes can extend to more than just persons.
Another source for stereotypes can be the siren call of convention or tradition. "Yes my characters are like that but it's because other people have always done it this way." Every genre has hallowed conventions that, when used to excess, devolve to stereotypes. Here I'm speaking not just of characterizations but other parts of story writing such as location, plot devices, choices in setting, etc. Problem is, once you've set up a location that is...for example...a spooky Gothic style mansion on the English moors, you pretty much know it will be either a horror, a mystery, or a romance. If the people on the house are mostly young, chances are it will be horror. Watch out for ghosts or vampires! If the owner of the mansion is a brooding Byronic type and the main protagonist is a young girl or woman...love on the moors! If the house is populated by a host of eccentric, quirky characters, you might end up with a comedy of manners or a murder mystery. Once you inscribe the setting with all these conventions, tropes, and background detail, the impulse to make the characters match the surroundings can lead the author to stereotypes. Finally, stereotypes can arise from the author's own biases and prejudices. Not one road leads astray but many.
So what is the cure? There isn't a silver bullet to help writers avoid the trap of stereotypes. Learning to recognize the influence of stereotypes is not easy because of the ingrained automatic nature described above. To minimize the danger, writers should first of all attempt to make characters who are well rounded and have plausible, understandable motivations and backstories. It doesn't have to be anything long or complex, though it should be germane to the character, the plot, and enough to engage the reader. Make it real. Make the people real.
Start with creating the character before assigning markers like race, religion, or gender. Think of who they are, their role in the story, and how they will impact it then bring in the rest. That way one can lessen the impulse to have race, religion, or gender influence the description of the character -- unles you are writing a story specifically to deal with an issue of race, religion, or gender then your task got much more complicated. Do your homework. Think about the character. See him or her as a whole and not a piece. Beyond that, common sense, experience, and the ability to read your own work with the eyes of a reader, not a writer, are good first starts. Hopefully you will have good readers who give constructive criticism and equally good editors who could point you to better uses for those stock characters, situations, or other cliched bits of the story.
When in doubt, remember write to show, not tell. Let the reader see the character by their deeds and actions and words, not by what you tell them. Do all that and the chances are high you can avoid most stereotypes -- and I guarantee the readers will thank you for the effort. It's a lot of work, but it will be worth it in the end.