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May 25, 2017

How Should We Deal with Character Stereotypes?

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

Minimize the negatives of stereotypes by following these four steps. Click To TweetFirst, 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?

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8 Comments on "How Should We Deal with Character Stereotypes?"

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Julie Glover

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.

Kate

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?

Sieran
Sieran
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… Read more »
Glynis Jolly

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.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

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.

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[…] bloggers wrote about the elements character, voice, and setting. Jami Gold explains how we should deal with character stereotypes, and how to strengthen our characters with strong writing. Padma Venkatraman writes about voice: […]

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