Posted by: Jodi | January 10, 2011

Using Stereotypes to Your Advantage

Common sense says that stereotypes fall on the “to be avoided” list when it comes to fiction writing.  The reasons are all solid; stereotyped characters come across as one-dimensional, they are not realistic, they are predictable, and they are boring.   Boring is bad, it turns away fickle readers and worse, potential agents or publishers.

Then why use them, why even be tempted?

Consider this – not all characters are important as others.  Stereotype your primary cast and you literally shoot yourself in the foot.  No one I know wants to read about the cute and super smart cheerleader and her football playing boyfriend, who just happens to also be a doppelgänger for a Calvin Klein model.

However, in most novel length fiction there is a whole arsenal of beings that appear for a page or two and then are never heard of again.  It is often not worth the reader’s time to offer any more than a brief note about them.  As writers we want to keep our reader’s focus on what is happening with either the story or the main characters, lengthy discussions about extraneous characters can draw this focus away.  Let’s see how using stereotypes change a scene:

Example A:  At the pizza parlor George scanned past the red vinyl booths, looking for Carly. To one side a rowdy bunch of jersey-wearing teenagers cheered as one of their members chugged a pitcher of soda.  After a few minutes he spotted her in the back, hefting a high chair in one arm and a tray of dirty dishes in the other.

Example B:  At the pizza parlor George scanned past the red vinyl booths, looking for Carly.  An unshaven man in a dark coat sat hunched over his beer at the bar watching the evening news and muttering to himself.  After a few minutes he spotted her in the back, carrying a dripping mop in one hand and a tray of dirty dishes in the other.

As readers no one cares about the teenagers or the man at the bar.  But, their presence gives a clear impression about the mood of the pizza parlor.   The only description given is the red vinyl booths, but I’m willing to bet that many of you “saw” much more based only on the stereotypes of the extra characters.

Why do we stereotype at all, why can’t we see each person as an individual?  Wikipedia has this to add:

“One theory as to why people stereotype is that it is too difficult to take in all of the complexities of other people as individuals. Even though stereotyping is inexact, it is an efficient way to mentally organize large blocks of information. Categorization is an essential human capability because it enables us to simplify, predict, and organize our world. Once one has sorted and organized everyone into tidy categories, there is a human tendency to avoid processing new or unexpected information about each individual. Assigning general group characteristics to members of that group saves time and satisfies the need to predict the social world in a general sense.”

In real life, stereotyping is often negative and can stunt our ability to be open minded about learning about new things or meeting new people.  However, since it is so universal, it is useful to add realism without adding bulk to a story.

Happy writing!

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Responses

  1. Wonderful post. We do use stereotypes on a regular basis:

    It is an automatic, sub-conscious process that dates back to the time when woolly mammoths roamed the Earth. After all, when confronted with an enormous beast, there were only a few critical pieces of information that the caveman’s brain wanted.

    It didn’t have time to play “21 Questions” (or sit down for a game of BlackJack) ~ it needed to know, as quickly as possible, answers to 2 questions:

    “Is it a carnivore, an omnivore, or an herbivore?”

    “Is it hungry?”

    If you’re interested: http://nrhatch.wordpress.com/2010/03/22/attack-of-the-killer-ants/

    • BTW: The two examples you gave (in the bar) illustrate the rationale for using stereotypes to tell our tales. Thanks!

    • Love it! The primitive brain has one job – to keep us safe, and it’s very good at it. Sad that there aren’t any large predators wandering around to let us use it like we used to.

  2. Good post, Jodi. I might add that there is a reason we have stereotypes. The people thus typed do exist, we do not make up stereotypes out of whole cloth.

    That said, I also agree that avoiding these for your main characters–as much as possible–is a good thing. More, it is essential. Your charcters need depth, and the ability to surprise your reader, I feel.

    Years ago “Mad Magazine” did a cartoon strip about heroes vs. villains. At the time I thought it was just silly, but over the years, I’ve found it to be true. Check this:

    The villains, clearly evil, and full of dastardly plans are invarialbly POLITE in demeanor. The heroes, on the other hand, staunch, sturdy, brave and true, typically are rude and insulting (this in the hero vs. villain scenes).

    When I think back to the movies with supervillains, this formula almost seems to be a requirement.

    Imagine that.

    • There no reason that a principle character can’t start as a stereotype as long as during the course of the story they turn into a true individual. Where I most see stereotyping hurt a story is when it is a secondary character that appears often but is never given a personality beyond their stereotype. Wow, redundancy goes wild!

      You get what I mean. I’d never thought about polite villains, but you’re right.

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  6. Great post Jodi, and I totally agree, using stereotypes in the way you mention can definitely add to the visual image the reader gets.

    • Thanks for the Twitter shout out – I still need to find you there, it’s a big, big world. Creating a great visual is so important to make a story really sing.

  7. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Alannah Murphy, Jodi Milner. Jodi Milner said: Have you learned the secret art to using stereotypes in your writing? Come find out! http://wp.me/pLl3e-ts #amwriting #amediting #writing […]

  8. Sometimes, it’s not realistic to avoid stereotypes. Like the hard-nosed cop, for instance. A wimpy pushover cop is simply implausible, because a wimpy pushover wouldn’t become a cop in the first place, or, at least, would quit a month into the job.

    When you take your hard-nosed cop and depict him as being a month away from retirement, make him the son of a cop who was killed in the line of duty, and give him a younger, more liberal-minded partner, then you’ve got problems.

    I think it’s fair to say that a run-down bar would be full of regular patrons with unhappy lives, that every school has at least one bully, and that crumbling kingdoms would be run by corrupt or ineffectual people (or elves, or whatever), so it makes sense for those characters to have some stereotypical attributes.

    • It’s true that certain lines of work attract certain types of people, and the writing wouldn’t be honest if it didn’t show that. But if that person is in a story more than a few pages they had better be more fleshed out and individualized.


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