How Should We Deal with Character Stereotypes?

by Jami Gold on May 25, 2017

in Writing Stuff

Sunset reflecting on water with text: What Should We Do about Cliches?

Writing is often about finding the right balance. We have to balance sharing too much information (such as using info dumps) with confusing readers by neglecting to give context. We have to balance grammar rules with voice. Etc., etc.

Part of the reason we face the issue of finding the right balance so frequently is that stories require us to include elements that—on the surface—we’d think should be avoided at all costs. For example, clichés, tropes, and stereotypes all seem like signs of lazy writing. And they are—or at least, they can be.

But it can be impossible to avoid all instances of stereotypical elements. So we’d likely fail if we tried to eradicate them entirely. What should we do instead?

Why Can’t We Completely Avoid Stereotypes?

As I said when writing about first page clichés:

“If we try to avoid every questionable element, we’ll be left with no options (and just create new clichés when our approach becomes trendy).”

Or in my post about true-life examples of story tropes, such as love-at-first-sight stories:

“There’s a saying about stereotypes: Stereotypes became stereotypes because there’s an element of truth to them. Not all stereotypes fit that saying, but some do.”

For example, there’s a stereotype that women like chocolate. A lot.

In reality, that stereotype obviously doesn’t apply to all women, but guess what? I’m absolutely a chocoholic.

(True story: Before I got my C.diff. diagnosis a few months ago, I worried that my symptoms were due to inheriting my dad’s late-onset chocolate intolerance. C.diff.—as near-incurable as it can be—was a welcomed diagnosis in comparison to the threat of no chocolate for the rest of my life. *shudder*)

Should I try not to like chocolate just because that’s a stereotypical trait for my gender? (Ha! Like that would happen…)

In other words, completely avoiding all stereotypes, clichés, and tropes isn’t possible. More importantly—as we all embody at least one stereotypical aspect—avoiding them entirely wouldn’t feel realistic. And that’s not going to help our story.

How Should We Deal with Stereotypes?

Step One: Identify the Elements & Question Our Choices

First, we need to identify the stereotypes, clichés, and tropes in our story. We can’t analyze whether we should edit them unless we know they’re there.

Everything in our story should have a purpose. Stereotypes, clichés, and tropes that exist in our story because our brain is being too lazy to come up with something more original don’t have a purpose. If they exist as the result of our brain’s laziness, they’re nothing better than a placeholder for something better.

So just as we might encourage diversity in our characters by asking ourselves whether we’re making assumptions about their traits, we can ask ourselves about our characters and whether we were conscious with our choices.

  • Is there a purpose to their character traits?
  • Or did our lazy brain simply rely on stereotypical assumptions?

Step Two: Analyze the Purpose of Elements

Now, saying that a trait “has a purpose” doesn’t mean that every character aspect needs to play into our story’s plot. We shouldn’t cut the fact that our character likes chocolate just because it’s stereotypical and doesn’t affect the story, such as her getting sick from eating too much later on.

Having a purpose can also mean that the element helps in other ways, such as…:

  • making the character more three-dimensional or layered, so they seem more real
  • giving the character something in common with readers, making them more relatable
  • showing a character’s vulnerabilities to readers, exposing their secrets, flaws, longings, etc.
  • balancing other elements, like giving a career-driven woman a dog or cat to care for, showing her softer side

Even something as simple as making a character more relatable is a valid purpose. As I said in my post about tropes:

“We see common tropes in stories because we relate to many of them. We relate to them because we’ve lived through them, either directly or through friends.

We need unique stories that rise above formula and dig beyond the predictable, but we also need a touch of normality to give our readers an anchor into our story’s world.

Story tropes that make the characters and/or story more relatable to the reader are a good thing. Their subtext taps into our subconscious and allows us to experience the story on a deeper level.”

Step Three: Consider the Negatives

Obviously, including stereotypical elements can make us look like lazy writers. So we’d often want to try to subvert the cliché in some way, especially if the element is important to the story or character.

If the stereotype is negative, we’d want to be especially careful as well. Tropes that make people look bad too often have their basis in racist or sexist (or other -ist) grounds. Authors who fall back on those negative stereotypes not only look lazy but whatever -ist their trope depended on.

Also, if a negative stereotype applies only to the bad guy, we’re doubling-down on the stereotypes. For example, if the most beautiful female character is vain, that’s one negative stereotype. If she’s also the villain, that’s correlating beauty, vanity, and evil all into one even bigger (negative) stereotype.

Even if the stereotype is commonly seen as “positive,” it could be offensive if not handled well. For example, a Native American character portrayed as spiritual could feel too one-note if that aspect felt like a box to be checked off.

More importantly, reinforcing common impressions of marginalized groups can be harmful, as they strengthen people’s assumptions about a group they might not be familiar enough with to recognize the limits of the stereotype. In turn, that can lead to reduced acceptance of the variation of individuals in the real world.

In addition, stereotypes which encourage people to see a group as “others”—not the same, not as valued, not as relatable, not as “normal,” not as important, not as advanced or developed, etc.—are especially risky for leading to members of that group being hurt.

Step Four: Overcome Any Negatives

If after considering the negatives, we decide to keep the element, we’d want to overcome (or at least minimize) those weaknesses. That’s why it’s good to understand where a stereotype came from.

If we understand what makes a stereotype weak or problematic, we can work to avoid those specific problems. We can make sure that our efforts to subvert one stereotype don’t land us into another (potentially worse) stereotype.

4 Tips for Overcoming Problems with Stereotypes

Subverting a trope means that we start with a cliché and then turn it on its head. However, we can’t always do that with every stereotypical element. What else can we do to overcome problems?

When we have to include stereotypes without subverting them, we can try these tips:

  • Tip #1: View through a 3D Lens

We want to ensure that we’re treating all characters, diverse or not, as characters first. They should have layers that help them be more than just that stereotypical element.

For example, with a strong female character, balance any literal butt-kicking ability with other admirable qualities (not just weaknesses). Don’t allow the butt-kicking alone to define who she is on the positive side of the equation.

If we’re viewing our characters as whole, three-dimensional beings with unique voices, goals, and motivations, we’re more likely to portray them in unique, non-stereotypical ways. And creating layered characters ensures that they’re not defined by only the stereotypical trait.

  • Tip #2: Show Variations

Especially for characters from marginalized groups, we can include multiple characters from that group—and show them as individuals with different traits. That way one character doesn’t “speak” for the group.

Maybe one of our characters with a certain diversity trait conforms to the stereotype, but we can include another member of that group who doesn’t. For example, my heroine in Stone-Cold Heart is Puerto Rican in heritage, and I included others with that same heritage in the story, so her character wouldn’t need to “represent” all with that background.

By including variations in our characters, any stereotype in one of those characters will be less likely to strengthen readers’ assumptions about all members of a group. Rather, we’re showing how everyone is an individual, even members of that group.

  • Tip #3: “Hang a Lantern” on the Stereotype

Sometimes we can overcome an impression of lazy writing by pointing out in the story’s text that an element is a stereotype. “Hanging a lantern/lampshade” on an element gives a wink-wink-nudge-nudge to readers and tells them: We know what this looks like, but trust us, it’s there for a reason.

For example, characters could argue, debate, or tease each other about their stereotypical trait. Our character’s best friend could tease her about how her love for chocolate is so stereotypical. *smile*

  • Tip #4: “Unpack” the Stereotype

We could explore the stereotype on the page, adding a level of thoughtfulness to it that erases any impression of “lazy writing.” For example, characters could talk or think about the stereotype, delving into where the stereotype came from, where it falls short of reality, or how it’s potentially harmful.

This style of unpacking, if done well, can actually help undo some of the negatives of the stereotype for readers when they come across it in the future as well.

We’ll never be able to completely avoid stereotypes in our writing, as they’re too ubiquitous and sometimes helpful for creating relatable stories and characters. However, we can do our best to make sure any stereotypes exist for a purpose, won’t cause harm, and contribute to a layered character. *smile*

Do you agree that stereotypes can’t be completely avoided? Do you think stereotypes, clichés, and tropes can sometimes be good for our story? What do you think determines whether a stereotypical element is good or bad for our story? Do you agree with my thoughts of how we should deal with stereotypical elements? Do you have any other tips about how to overcome problems with stereotypes?

Pin It
8 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Julie Glover May 25, 2017 at 8:00 am

This was great post for me to think about the novel I’m editing right now. There’s a secondary character who might be considered a stereotype; however, I wanted to show her up front in that way, as seen by the main character, but then develop within the novel that she isn’t just the stereotype. The main character (a high school teenager) gets past seeing her as a two-dimensional person and discovers layers and reasons why this girl has become the way she is.

I guess I’m hoping that readers will indirectly get the message that we should question how we pigeonhole people into stereotypes—that even when they hint at the truth, it’s not the whole truth. There’s a lot more going on with any individual.

Of course, now that I read your post, I’m going to be particular aware of making sure my intention is what actually comes across on the page.

Reply

Kate May 25, 2017 at 12:24 pm

This is a timely post for me! “… Native American character portrayed as spiritual could feel too one-note if that aspect felt like a box to be checked off.” — your example is very interesting, as my minor character is Native American and spiritual!

However, she uses the spirituality to help the protagonist out of a dangerous situation. My hope is that because I put her spirituality to work in the novel, rather than just using it as a descriptor, it is more meaningful and lessens the glare of the stereotype. Is this kind of what you’re talking about when you say that everything in our story should have a purpose?

Reply

Jami Gold May 25, 2017 at 5:54 pm

Hi Kate,

Great question! You’ve certainly covered the “purpose” aspect of the trait by having it play into the plot.

However, there are several “negative” aspects that you might not have considered. (You actually might already have these on your list to overcome, but so much of this depends on how it’s written, and I figured it was best to make sure. 🙂 )

The post I linked to in Step One includes this point on secondary characters with diverse traits:

“Most of the time, when non-diverse authors are slammed for writing diverse characters, it’s because the author wrote a character according to a stereotype or as an “other” (like an uber-insightful, near-magical elderly black woman whose only purpose in the story is to make the protagonist “better”). Neither of those situations treat the diverse characters as three-dimensional. They’re important only for their diverse aspects and not treated as a “real” person.”

So you’d want to make sure that this Native American character didn’t fall into that trap of her only purpose being to help the protagonist, as that can be a doubling-down of stereotypes by pointing out that they’re not “worthy” of being a protagonist of their own story. Yeeks. Not the message we intend.

One way to avoid that issue is to make sure she’s well-rounded. What does that mean in this situation?

Make sure she has other traits (positive and negative) in addition to her spirituality. Most importantly, think about why she helps the protagonist. It can’t be simply because the protagonist is oh-sooo important, special, worthy, etc. This character is the protagonist of her own life, and she deserves more than just being a puppet to the story’s protagonist.

  • What’s she going to get out of it?
  • How is that important to her?
  • How will it help her reach her goals?

(That advice isn’t simply because of the diverse element, by the way. Secondary characters should always be written this way. They should have their own goals that might clash with the protagonist–and that’s good for conflict. 🙂 )

Also, be super-duper-extremely (!!! 🙂 ) careful about how the spirituality aspect is portrayed. People already have lots of assumptions and stereotypes about Native American spirituality, and the truth tends to get twisted around to fit the story world, treating it like mythology and not the living religion it is. It shouldn’t be treated as magic or have abilities to do “magic” unless there’s an explanation in the story for that outside of the Native American aspect, such as her being a paranormal being who just happened to be raised as a Native American. 😉

(For example, Catholic belief states that priests can perform Transubstantiation, changing bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. So spiritual activity in a story that takes advantage of that ability would be in keeping with the beliefs, while spiritual activity that makes stuff up about priests being able to raise the dead would not be. (And some Catholics aren’t sure how much they buy the official belief as it is–being the actual body and blood and not just symbolic.) The same respect should be paid to other religious beliefs.)

Know what tribe or nation she’s from so she’s an individual (Native Americans aren’t a monolith). Do research into the beliefs and practices of that specific tribe to ensure you’re accurately portraying them. Then get a sensitivity/accuracy reader (preferably from that tribe) to check for things you don’t even know to watch out for. We often don’t know what all we don’t know. 🙂

In other words, you can make this work, but on the surface–through no fault of yours–the story element falls into a lot of stereotype traps by default. So you’d have to put in extra work to avoid them. Does that make sense? Hope that helps!

Reply

Kate June 6, 2017 at 5:56 pm

Thanks, Jami!

The secondary character is the best friend/crush of the protagonist, so there is the need and want of simply helping him and protecting him that is important to her.

She does have her own goals, separate from his, and when he makes a big mistake that prevents him from reaching his “WANT” she doesn’t pull up stakes along with him–she keeps on with her dream to pursue her goal without him. This creates conflict b/c he assumed she would just “take his side.”

Yes, I did specify her tribe and conducted research into that tribe’s beliefs and practices, but I couldn’t find information to help me with specific details in my story–probably because they are details straight from my imagination! So a sensitivity reader is a great idea! Do you have suggestions on where to find someone who’d be willing to help out?

Reply

Sieran May 25, 2017 at 8:10 pm

Thanks for addressing this issue on character and story stereotypes/ cliches! I have actually mostly stopped worrying about this issue, since I also think that avoiding all stereotypes will make a character look unrealistic. I think most people are a combination of stereotypical and a-stereotypical traits. For instance, I fit the stereotype of a nonbinary trans person in using a pronoun that is neither he or she. But I don’t fit the stereotype of a nonbinary person having very short hair! I actually have very long hair, lol, and I want to keep it that long.

Similarly, for my mostly gay bisexual hero in my WIP, he breaks some queer male stereotypes, e.g. He has never been into dolls or girl games, and doesn’t like flowers. But he does fit into SOME stereotypes, e.g. His personality is rather feminine, kind of flamboyant, and is highly verbal and charming. He isn’t SUPER feminine, though, and he confesses to his love interest that acting in feminine ways often gets him what he wants. So…that would be seeing some of my character’s personal motives as an individual. He is kind of a manipulative person, yet you really sympathize with him and understand that he only manipulates people to survive. Much of his past is still shrouded in mystery, but we get a sense that SOMETHING was wrong, despite that he had a very happy and loving family, with a sweet sister and two devoted fathers. Thus, even though there’s a risk of him seeming like the “manipulative sociable guy” cliche, there is an implied backstory that promises more depth and complexity than just “he’s a guy who exploits people’s feelings to get what he wants.”

On the other hand, we have my gay trans male character, who is the other protagonist of my WIP. He defies many gay male stereotypes: he’s more about logic and doesn’t like talking about his emotions; he hates and rejects everything feminine though he’s fine with girls as people; he’s very macho in many ways, like being tough and independent to a stubborn and annoying extent, being cold and rejecting when others try to reach out to him emotionally, etc. But he does conform to SOME gay male stereotypes, e.g. being very charmed and entranced by an extremely handsome man (this might just be a romance trope too); and that though he doesn’t like thinking about his emotions or talking about them, he is actually willing to talk about his feelings in some circumstances.

Btw you may notice that for the “not conforming to the gay male stereotype” traits of my trans guy character, these same traits might conform to the stereotype of a trans man!! Of being deliberately macho and anti-all feminine behaviors and interests. (I.e. Trying very hard to appear masculine to others.) Well, though my character conforms to this image of a trans man, I think it’s understandable given his situation why he would develop those traits. I don’t know the specifics of his backstory, but I believe he was rejected by his family members for his identity. Before, when he was raised as a girl, he was much loved, pampered, and cherished, especially as the youngest child in the family. Yet, after he came out as a boy (not sure at what age yet), though his family didn’t disown him, cut him off financially, curse him, or anything overt like that, his family members (not sure if he has any supportive family members or not) gradually treat him more and more coldly…They become increasingly distant towards him, and later, both his parents die (maybe due to an accident or illnesses?) So what I imagine, is that he feels very sad, hurt, angry, and betrayed, especially as he was so beloved in the family before. And thus, he rebels and becomes aggressively masculine and boyish, to take revenge on his family for their emotional cruelty.

Okay even that backstory explanation may sound cliche to some people, especially as my story is set in a society that should be much more LGBT-friendly than ours. Though you do get hints that SOME people in the society are still not too warm towards queer and trans people. And there is the whole BS “it’s okay if other kids are LGBT. But it’s not okay if my kid is LGBT.” However, you may also notice that though his family becomes cold to him, they didn’t cut him off from their family, make him homeless, try to convert him into a cisgender girl, or anything horrific like that (though these things can and have really happened in our society to some trans children). So I would think his family’s reaction is more believable in the context of THEIR society. Even though I’d like to believe that most families in their world are much more open-minded than that…

Still, some readers may think that is a cliched backstory for a trans man. But they may not realize that this is what the author anticipates their homophobic and transphobic family will do to them once they come out to their family…

Actually, no. I think my family would give me even worse treatment than that. They would think I’m a monster and exile me from any family gatherings forever after. Yes, I’m pessimistic. And I did have a similar childhood to my trans guy character, as I was always very loved, respected, and appreciated among my family and relatives. It’s especially noticeable with my relatives; for some reason, I always get the feeling that they have a lot of respect and even admiration for me as a person. Most of my cousins don’t get such privileged treatment from my relatives. So, I predict that I will lose ALL of this respect, appreciation, admiration, and love after I come out to them. And I will end up feeling completely betrayed, bitter, resentful, and cynical like my trans male character is now.

Gosh, sorry, that got dark really fast. D: But whether one is trans or cis, I think a fall from being the favorite and greatly respected member of the family, to being a social outcast, would be painful, extremely cruel, and ultimately damaging to one’s soul. 🙁

You always get cut some slack if you’re​ writing from personal experience or some imagined future experience. ^_^ It’s as though the author is exploring their real-life fears and horrors through the much safer context of a novel.

P.S. You might have guessed that I half-hope my family will come across this post one day and they will understand how I feel and magically become LGBT-friendly​. ^_^

P.P.S. I think I mentioned this before, but I find that most of the time, my stories don’t fall into cultural stereotypes, but they may fall into my personal stereotypes/ tropes. E.g. I’m very enchanted by the sight and touch of water, so my stories often feature adventures that involve large bodies of water, e.g. a beautiful ocean. The readers might be able to work out that the author is kind of obsessed with water and liquid forms, lol. Even a lot of my verb choices are to do with water and fluids…Omg.

Reply

Glynis Jolly May 26, 2017 at 5:47 am

I believe stereotyping is sometimes necessary but reason should be given to the reader. Your tip #4 is a great way to solve this problem.

Reply

Clare O'Beara May 28, 2017 at 2:04 am

Great post! One we need to address in every story we write.

I have often used the rounding aspect for my secondary and walk-on characters as it just makes them more interesting and helps me remember them through the tale.
Also I have featured more than one of a particular grouping so they can alleviate any harm shown by a negative aspect. One man is potentially up to something dodgy, one woman works hard in a care home for elderly people. One young woman is a trainee nurse, scared of authority; one older woman is an endocrinologist. This just keeps a balance.

A friend was diagnosed with C. diff and a superantibiotic was employed to get rid of it. Thankfully it worked. I hope you can get a suitable treatment.

Reply

What do you think?

8 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Previous post:

Next post: