On Stereotypes

We members of the writersphere like our rules and that is evident by the number of them floating around. While I could attempt to list the most common ones, I don’t see the point as I’d then have to also list why there are exceptions to every single one. Well, almost every single one. The one about not stalking an agent in the toilet is probably valid.

Anywho, the one I want to talk about today is stereotypes. People will tell you to always avoid stereotypes. This is one of those rules that is mostly right but sometimes not. There are certain circumstances where a stereotype can be necessary. For example:

1) When you have a minor character you don’t need to explain. For example, if your main character needs to make reference to someone in their past in a way that will explain an entire scenario without actually explaining an entire scenario, it’s sometimes easier to use a stereotype. So your main character might refer to her younger sister, the head cheerleader-slash-supermodel and it will be implied that this sister was more popular and probably got all the boyfriends etc etc etc. While it would be more interesting for the younger sister to be more popular despite being a Physics nerd, it would take a lot more time to justify this kind of thing and you don’t want to do that if all you need is one line to establish why the main character doesn’t want to fly to Buffalo for her sister’s birthday party.

2) When you have a major character who the main character needs to have a revelation about. For example, if your main character needs to hate a character named Bob for a portion of the book (probably because Bob has some kind of essential information the main character needs), you can make the main character dislike him because of a perceived stereotype. So your main character might hate all bartenders because she dated one and he was a player so she thinks they’re all players and therefore Bob, the bartender, must be a player too. This stereotype acts as a blinder for a portion of the book, however it’s important that you turn it on its ass in the end (meaning Bob can’t actually be a player).

3) When you are making a statement about stereotypes in a more general sense. You may want to do this if you’re trying to show why a stereotype is ridiculous. For example, if you had a book where the government decided to make all blondes into professional cheerleaders because they decided that’s what blondes do. Yes, I realize my example is ridiculous but that is kind of the point.

4) When it just works. I have no explanation for this one. Sometimes, you just need a character that is a stereotypical whatever because that is exactly the kind of character you need for your plot. The example that springs to mind is Jack from Will & Grace. In many ways, Jack fit into a stereotype for a gay man in New York. This worked for the show because it showed how different Will was and, in a way, showed that the stereotype was wrong (see #3).

If you can think of other examples of when stereotypes work (or don’t!), please add them in the comments.

Category: On Writing