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.