Several weeks ago I asked everyone to share their reading pet peeves, and you did (thanks, guys!). It was interesting to see how many similar annoyances cropped up, as well as some I’d never have considered.
For the first installment of the “Fix Your Reader’s Pet Peeves” series, let’s tackle stereotypes and characters, as this was a biggie for nearly every responder.
Although there were multiple specific peeves, one thing was very clear—poorly crafted characters bugged a lot of readers, especially when writers rely on cliches and stereotypes to create them. Since characters are the reasons most readers read, this can kill your novel. Let’s look at some ways to avoid creating bad characters.
The Difference Between Stereotypes and Archetypes
I think it’s important to note the distinction here, because there are certain archetype characters we see and need in fiction. The hero for instance. The love interest is also a must if you’re writing romance. The sidekick is critical in adventure stories or humor.
An archetype is a role that readers can easily understand and connect with. “Role” is the key word here, because it conceptualizes the job of that particular character in a story. There’s nothing wrong with having archetype characters, because any character can fill a role.
A stereotype is personality shorthand that takes the most generalized (and often negative) traits of a certain type of person, be it gender, ethnicity, societal role, religion, or difference and exaggerates them. Stereotypes ignore the “character” part and focus on external traits so generalized and caricatured that they’re meaningless.
In essence, the difference between the best friend and the gay best friend.
It’s fine to start with an archetype and develop it into a character. Not so good to use a stereotype in lieu of developing a character.
I also think it’s important to note that I believe very few people write stereotypes with the intent of being mean or hurtful. I think it’s accidental, because we write what feels “normal” for us, and rely on what we “know” to fill in the blanks of the unknown. And sometimes we don’t know squat and that gets us into trouble. By being aware of this, and sensitive to it, we can work toward avoid stereotypes as much as possible.
Why Do We Use Stereotypes?
Stereotypes are easy to fall back on because they’re, well, easy. Who doesn’t instantly know how to write the gangsta thug, or mob boss, or the ditsy blond? We’ve seen these cartoonish characters portrayed in TV and movies all our lives. They feel fleshed out, even when they’re not.
We also use them when we don’t know how someone of a demographic group different from ours would behave or think. We’re not X ethnicity, or X gender, or X anything, and the only reference we have to go in is what we’ve seen in other shows and books.
Sadly, stereotypes exist for a reason, and you can find examples of them in real life (which is why it’s so easy to fall back on them). But that’s not all a person is, even when they do possess a lot of stereotypical traits. If you find yourself brushing up against a stereotype, just make sure there’s more “real person” in that character than stereotype to balance the cliche.
As the saying goes, all elephants are gray animals, but not all gray animals are elephants. Same thing applies to stereotypes.
Avoiding Stereotypes in Our Writing
Since writing stereotypes is so easy to do, they often slip in without us noticing. We need a quick character, so well pull a pre-packaged one off the shelf.
So don’t be lazy.
Treat every character like a real person, no matter how small a role they play. While we don’t need to craft an entire backstory for the waitress who brings coffee in chapter four, we can take two minutes to think about who she is and ask if she’s matching some plug-and-play stereotype. Is she someone we’ve seen in real life, or is she a version of a waitress from a sit-com?
If you’re concerned about a character, ask:
1. Is this character a person or a series of traits?
Write down a description of the character in question. What comes first? Is it a list of quirky traits that could belong to anyone? Is the focus on particular aspects of race, gender, religion? Does the description fit a “race/gender + trait + role” structure, like the gay sassy best friend or the black gruff cop?
If the description is what they are or how they act, not who they are and what they do, you might be verging into stereotype territory. Look at ways to flesh out that character that have nothing to do with what’s on the outside.
(Here’s more on fleshing out a character)
2. Is this character someone we’ve seen before—a lot?
If a quick, “who is this character like?” question can bring up several other characters with little effort (especially if they mostly come from TV or movies), there might be some stereotypes at play there, particularly if every example you think of exhibits the same traits or mannerisms.
Try eliminating those traits and look at who the character is now. If the character vanishes, that’s a red flag they weren’t anything but cliched traits to begin with. Trying rebuilding them without those traits and see what happens.
3. What roles do your non-white characters play?
This one might hit a few triggers, but there is a lack of diversity in fiction. When we do find diverse characters, they’re often the villains or comic relief played for laughs, or that one trait is story shorthand to represent something negative. If the only non-white/non-abled (even if you’re writing science fiction or fantasy) characters are the bad guys or joke characters, there’s a decent chance there’s a stereotype in there. Try looking at why you made those particular characters those genders/race/preference/religion/etc. This also holds true for mentally or emotionally disabled characters.
4. Can you change the gender/ethnicity/attribute of the character and they still work?
Does the math whiz have to be Asian? The cheap roommate Jewish? The gang member black? The housekeeper Latino? The rich do-gooder white? The surgeon male? The nurse female? The troubled teen depressed? The effeminate guy or butch-looking girl gay? The environmentalist a vegan or hippie? The female CEO a witch? Stereotypes all, and none of these combinations are necessary for a character in question to be a good character. Try playing against stereotypes and create the last person you’d think of if someone said “teen math whiz” or “environmental crusader” who also fits in with your world and story.
(Here are more ways to develop strong characters)
5. Are the traits or aspects of the character mostly negative?
While stereotypes can be “positive,” they typically portray a group in a negative way. If most of the negative aspects of your characters belong to people you made a point to identify as a particular group, you might be wandering into dangerous territory. This also works in you have characters who are nothing but negative traits.
Try looking at your characters. Are all the “good” ones described as real people who feel “normal” because they’re like you? Are all the “bad” ones described as a certain group and “not normal” because they’re different from you? If so, perhaps reevaluate those characters and change a few aspects to make them feel like real people.
6. Is there a reason for that character to be X gender/race/religion/etc. that has nothing to do with a particular cliche?
Sometimes we want a character to be a certain thing, and that’s fine. Maybe we’re trying to add more diversity, or we want a character to be different from the same’old-same’old we’ve seen a million times. These are the times when we want to take a little extra time to make sure our characters aren’t becoming stereotypes and ruining our good intentions. If we think, “I’d love to add more ethnic diversity,” then we make those diverse characters stereotypes, we’re only perpetuating the problem.
The number one way to not create stereotypes: Create real characters with personalities, hopes, dreams, feelings, etc. that all come from somewhere real. Give their actions and beliefs solid motivations, give them flaws and weakness, strengths and virtues. Make them people first, and you’ll go a long way toward avoiding stereotypes and cliched characters.
Have you ever accidentally written a stereotype character? What stereotypical characters have irked you in the past?
Looking for tips on planning or revising your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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