You say stereoTYPE and I say stereoTROPE. Did we both just say a dirty word?
As readers of this blog know, I like tropes. Even when they are so incredibly overused that they go from being a useful shortcut to an absolute stereotrope. What is a stereotrope? There are lots of definitions, ranging from a 3D animation machine to “…an interactive experiment, exploring a set of tropes authored by the community on tvtropes.org that are categorized as being always female or always male.” [check out the entertaining page on http://stereotropes.bocoup.com/!]
But I think of stereotropes as the things that everybody “knows”. Little girls like ponies. Women love shoes. Men don’t cry. Everyone hates mimes. (Well, maybe that last one is a universal truth…)But today, trope lovers, is our lucky day because writer S.K. Nicholls is here to tell us how to turn stereotypes from a bad word to a good tool. So please pull up a chair, and grab a cup (pink for girls, blue for boys, and red for people with absolutely nothing more important in this world to worry about than whether or not their red Starbucks cup is waging a war on Christmas.)
A Bad Word in Writing Fiction: Stereotypes, Making Them Work For You
Guest Post By S.K.Nicholls
The word stereotype conjures up all sorts of negative connotations in our mind when we hear it. We are taught that stereotyping is a bad thing to do. At worst, stereotypes contribute to intolerance and discrimination and limit people in their understanding of society. Yet, the word exists for a reason. Our brains are hardwired to recognize patterns, especially in visual clues. Stereotypes will continue to exist as long as there is diversity and a tendency in the human brain to compartmentalize knowledge as a way of reducing “thinking effort”.
Denying the existence of stereotypes doesn’t help anyone. If anything, we should talk openly about them and try to understand how they affect our thinking—and how they factor into fiction.
A stereotype is a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type. It can be used to describe places (the city jungle, the hills, the bayou), people, (dumb blonde, female caregiver, biker dude), things (burka, peace sign, ten-gallon hat).
Stereotypes can be used to quickly place a setting in fiction. The mid-west, the south, a swamp, all give us a quick image pulled up from our subconscious. Characters, just like people, make good or bad first impressions. While we recognize that stereotypes are unfair, we can’t avoid running an inventory of them when we first meet someone new. Our biology sets us up to recall in this way.
Possible prejudicial effects of stereotypes are:
- Justification of ill-founded prejudices or ignorance
- Unwillingness to rethink one’s attitudes and behavior towards stereotyped groups or places
- Preventing some people of stereotyped groups from entering or succeeding in activities or fields.
How can the stereotype be used to the writer’s and the reader’s advantage?
- When we introduce a character for the first time, a stereotype is a character the reader will recognize and believe to know. But that’s also when our interest in him ends, and we won’t engage with him. However, if he breaks the stereotype, we become alert and curious about him. The part of our brain that seeks to integrate new information will immediately start to pay more attention because of that deviation from the comfort zone of stereotyping. Of course, you don’t have to use stereotypes in first impressions, but it’s easier for readers to start from and correct a shallow first impression, then to become interested in a one-dimensional character without face or contour.
“That’s part of the power of stereotypes—they set up expectations, so you can surprise your reader.” Orson Scott Card, “Characters and Viewpoint”
- Stereotypes can also be used to blend walk-on characters into the background without distracting the reader from the protagonist. The fill-in character can accomplish their role without chopping off a splinter of emotional engagement from the reader. The easiest way to make them feel like real people, without wasting so much as a paragraph on describing them, is to appeal to subconscious stereotypes.
Basically, the rule of thumb when using stereotypes in fiction is this – things that seem instantly familiar drop into the background, while things that break our expectations even by a little stand out.
Depending on the story you write, you can use stereotypes for comical effect (the hardened criminal who has to dress like a nun to rob a church), to create contrast with other characters (the cowboy who walks into a Texas bar to be greeted by a bartender with a Scottish accent), to generate controversy (the single mom who is highly qualified for a new job but gets disqualified when she mentions her children). Or you can use stereotypes for an educational purpose. For example, by portraying a character’s struggle to overcome an offensive stereotype he’s being pushed into, or by giving an antagonist a stereotypical thinking and showing how it contributes to his demise in the end. Some of the best works in fiction have been about people trying to overcome an adverse environment, and the damaging stereotypes people use against them.
Think of “the unpopular high school girl”…everybody has an image of her. A stereotype. Stephen King’s “Carrie” was not only a story of supernatural telekinesis but every unpopular high school girl’s dream of revenge
In this global age of social media, our instincts are to avoid and shun stereotypes at all costs. Political correctness prevents us from being associated with any kind of injustice toward “other people” and from being branded as ignorant and insensitive.
Blazing Saddles, 1974—because nobody subverts a stereotype like Mel Brooks!
But it also has a downside for writers because it makes us become afraid to offend somebody with our stories. This systematic avoidance of anything that might be interpreted as offensive can lead to cookie-cutter and bland fiction, with characters that don’t stand out because they don’t stand for anything!
Use them to evidence strength of character. Use them to the advantage of the story, as well as to the advantage of the reader.
Stereotype doesn’t have to be a dirty word, if it’s treated with respect.
S.K. Nicholls is the author of “Red Clay and Roses”, a historical novel of life in the Deep South during the time of Jim Crow Law, and before Roe vs. Wade. Women were supposed to keep quiet and serve, abortion was illegal, adoption difficult, and racism rampant. The discovery of an old ledger opens a window into the dynamics of the 1950s-60s.
Her next release, “Naked Alliances”, is a wacko Florida crime fiction novel with an amusing, if not hilarious, comedic undercurrent throughout, starring Richard Noggin, P.I., a laid back investigator whose experience has been limited to domestic cases, and Brandi, a transsexual exotic dancer who is trying to outrun a ring of sex traffickers who are after a girl that has been dumped on her doorstep…as they team up to try to solve a cold case murder for the former mayor.