Saturday, November 15, 2008

Creating Characters Part 2: Stereotypes

Standard thinking is that good characters avoid being stereotypes. I think that’s a bit oversimplified. Consider a character named “Joe.” We first meet Joe at a gun show in Alabama. He’s around fifty, long hair, beard, wearing blue jeans, motorcycle boots, and a t-shirt that reads: “Always outnumbered, Never outgunned.” He has a southern accent. We see him talking with one gun dealer about the best weapons for home defense, then see him buying reloaded ammunition for this .357 magnum. He finally buys a machete before leaving.

What kind of vehicle does Joe drive away in?
a. sports car
b. SUV
c. pickup truck
d. a hybrid

What level of education do you think Joe has?
a. high school only
b. college degree
c. advanced degree, (MA, PhD, JD)
d. high school dropout

If you selected “c” for the first question and either “a” or “d” for the second one, then you’re doing what most readers do, you’re buying into stereotypes. Readers will say they don’t like stereotypes but they use them all the time to guide them into a story. And if you suddenly break stereotypes as a writer you run the risk of losing the reader.

Characters should avoid being complete stereotypes, of course, but the writer usually needs to bend stereotypes gradually rather than snapping them all at once. You have to lead the reader into your character, and remember that almost all readers will make certain assumptions about your characters based on stereotypes.

By the way, Joe is essentially me. The gun show mentioned was in Louisiana instead of Alabama, and was a composite of several gun shows I’ve visited. But other than that it’s me. And I don’t drive a pickup.



writtenwyrdd said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
writtenwyrdd said...

Very insightful, Charles. I agree with you 100% on that.

But I will also say that, in speculative fiction, whether sf or fantasy, it seems to me that in a world that is based on humanity but not on the current societies or cultural mores, it becomes much more tricky and conversely more needful to use stereotypes.

They're a more obvious crutch if they are your example of the "typical redneck" only space-jargoned up for space opera, and probably counterproductive most of the time in that use.

However it seems to me that an sff writer *needs* to create stereotypes so the readers can hold the world in their heads, too. You can't throw an entire unfamiliar world or society at a reader and expect her to hold the entire thing in their heads. So while it seems counter intuitive, I think that if you don't create and use stereotypes to a certain extent, you can end up losing your readers too.

Of course, you can rely on the tropes (stereotypes) of all the past sff tales that have come before...

(Second go at trying to make sense. Hope this one works better!)

Lana Gramlich said...

You don't drive a pickup, but you WANT an El Camino, which might even be worse...but I guess I'll still love you. ;)

Rick said...

Stereotypes have such a bad reputation. Now I'm beginning to feel sorry for them. But is it possible that we're only stereotyping them as stereotypes? You see what I mean, I know.

Wait, the fact of character stereotypes is sort of indictment against the reader since stereotypes exist in the reader's mind. But as the author, you would then be a stereotype ennabler, right?

On the other hand, if stereotypes and stereotype ennablers are necessary in fiction.... then aren't writers in a sense the promoters of sterotyping in society? This would mean that writers are the root cause of stereotyping.

You see what happens when I read something on your blog while I'm supposed to be studying?

Anonymous said...

You can't escape stereotypes. Now that I've said that it sounds too absolute. There are probably some exceptions, but I take exception to those. As a reader I enjoy some stereotypes. I also enjoy when people take a stereotype and tweak it, giving the character a little extra. Sometimes real people are part stereotype and part unique.

David Cranmer said...

Charles, I couldn't agree more and I like the idea of gradually bending instead of snapping.

JR's Thumbprints said...

Now you got me thinking about writing my own background. I could follow it with this question: Where would this person most likely teach?

a) small country school
b) middle class suburban school
c) private school
d) prison or detention facility

MarmiteToasty said...

Yep, never judge a book by the cover....

I my self would love a pickup LOL.... I did drive me maties one once from up the farm when I wanted to unload some rubbish at the dump.... I even took along Farley the farmdog for the ride... driving one certainly changes the person ya though ya was...... :)


BernardL said...

Good example, and you could write a whole novel undoing that particular stereotype.

Tom Evans said...

I thought it was as soon as I started reading! I'm assuming that the answer to the second question wasn't so obvious either.... Or is that an anti-stereotype?

More importantly, I disaree that throwing the reader with the unexpected might lose them. I think it's good to shake a character up a bit from time to time...

Charles Gramlich said...

Writtenwyrd, that's a good point, worthy of some thought. I agree that the "newer" the world is so to speak, the more "unfamiliar," the more people may need to see the familiar in the characters.

Lana, thanks for blowing my entire premise out of the water and revealing my secret lust for an El Camino. :)-

Rick, we are all enablers, my friend. I just hope to enable lots of people to part with their money for my books. Whoo hoo.

Jack, I definitely like when the stereotype is tweaked good and hard.

David Cranmer, thanks. I think I need to develop this thought more and maybe make it a column for the Illuminata.

JR, in your case I'd suggest e: insane asylum. ;) Or is that the same as "d"?

Marmite toasty, in the interests of full disclosure, I have owned a pick up at one point in my life.

Bernardl, I know. That one bugs me because I'm so close to it.

Tom Evans, it probably depends on how comfortable the writer has allowed the reader to get with the stereotype. Breaking it early is less of a problem than breaking it later.

Cath said...

I agree with the comment "very insightful". I have to say, I couldn't properly answer that question because I have no knowledge or experience of what sort of bloke buys ammo so what he drives or his education is etc... but I get your point.

For me, if you are breaking with stereotype with your character that works only if we firstly know the character.

Travis Cody said...

Dang. No wonder writing is so hard.

I wonder if the thing to avoid with stereotypes is the assumed behavior that follows from the description of the character?

laughingwolf said...

i'da chosen motorbike, but wasn't an option ;) lol

yeah, tricky things those stereotypes... sometimes a snap's as good as a bend....

Travis Erwin said...

Nice points, but I'm siding with Lana, forget the El Camino dream. There has never been a worse looking vehicle.

Steve Malley said...

I remember my first gun show, across the bridge in Slidell. Nice folks, though I'd never seen so many mustaches outside of gay porn.

The rest of comment went *really* long, so I just ended up doing it as another post. Mostly, it came down to, sometimes stereotypes are useful.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

That's a very useful system - mind you sometimes it is preferable to create a stereotype for affect. But this system looks like it will be useful to me and I'll use it some day in the future.

j said...

Excellent! I have been discussing stereo typing and judging with my daughters lately (not in a literary sense though).

And as you were writing, I was thinking "That could be my husband (who has attended gun shows in Alabama)". He has purchased plenty of guns and ammo at those shows, has a beard and is almost always in jeans.... and has a college degree and his own business.

Interesting post.

Greg said...

good post. everyone just assumes stereotypes are bad, but most people don't stop and think that there's a reason they came about, and a lot of times they're true.

Erik Donald France said...

Ha, I figured it was you!

Great stuff, and true: "bend stereotypes gradually rather than snapping them all at once."

One could have a lot of fun with matrixes made from questions like this.

Miladysa said...

“Always outnumbered, Never outgunned.”

I LIKE that T-Shirt :D

I would have chosen C from the first section and opted out of the second.

Interesting post :D

Anonymous said...

"Joe The Redneck"? Buy all the guns you can now 'fore Obama takes them away! I totally agree with this Charles. This guy driving a Porsche would never be believable.

The Trailer Of Love

Anndi said...

I met a "Joe" in Alabama except his name was Mike and he was the most intriguing person. My Honey and I have to go back to his place again when I go back.

I like going against the stereotype. I like twists, when things don't turn out the way they were "supposed" to.

Vesper said...

Very interesting, Charles!

So, do you own the t-shirt that reads: “Always outnumbered, Never outgunned?” :-)

The writer usually needs to bend stereotypes gradually - I agree. I would add "carefully" to this so as not to turn the run from stereotypes into another stereotype...

Mary Witzl said...

There are people who conform to stereotypes, but only a few ever manage to do this 100%. (I've got good-old-boy relatives who have un-good-old-boy habits like knowing foreign languages or hanging out the washing on occasion, even with an able-bodied wife around...) But you'd have to spend a lot of time around them to see this side.

I love seeing people break out of the stereotypical roles their class or accent or background seems to slot them into, whether in real life or literature. I realize that sometimes this can't happen; a lot of people see themselves as the stereotype and virtually become it, refusing to let any individuality peek out. But it's great when we get to see through the stereotype even just a little.

Charles Gramlich said...

Crazycath, I think if a reader doesn't "know" the character that is where the stereotypes raise their heads.

Travis, I think it's good to avoid the behavior, but subtlely. Bend but don't break, at least at first.

Laughingwolf, that's why I didn't put a motorcycle in there.

Travis Erwin, dude, you and Lana do not know the glory that is the...El Camino.

Steve Malley, definitely great folks. Just don't pull a gun on 'em. lol

Archavist, yes, stereotypes can be very useful to a writer, I think.

Jennifer, sounds like he could be one of my brothers. Thanks for visiting.

Greg, I talk to my students about that issue and they usually seem surprised that stereotypes might actually be positive toward certain groups, like "doctors"

Erik, I think you're right about the questions. Maybe it would tell us more about ourselves than the "character."

Miladysa, you are most discerning. I like that t-shirt. I wear it when I go to Texas.

Wil, I think you're right. You'd lose the reader.

Anndi, If I'd been in Alabama then it might have been me.

Vesper, I do own that t-shirt. It's got a picture of a pair of semi-automatic 45s on the back.

Mary Witzl, I think you're exactly correct. I like to see people break those stereotypes too and it's more fun in real life than in fiction.

Precie said...

Woo! I got the second question right! (Um, I was kinda thinking of a Ted Kaczynski-ish character, though. Sorry.)

But I did think pickup truck...with SUV a close second...just from a logistics standpoint...i.e., the character likely has some kind of armory at home, possibly hunts or at least does target practice somewhere.

Stereotypes in fiction may be the equivalent of foreshadowing. Readers see clues and signs and want to forecast what will happen or who a character "is." But one of the wonderful things about fiction is the space for play...I could see this character following a stereotype, sure, but I could just as easily picture him going home to read Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson. Putting on a kettle for tea (rather than popping open a beer). So that the first impression may follow a stereotype but then the development of the character--or the character's reaction to a specific event that tests him/her--is what I think determines whether a writer is using a stereotype or working with stereotypes.

Lana Gramlich said...

Charles; Sometimes we think in stereotypes, sometimes we are stereotypes. I love you all the same. ;)

Lana Gramlich said...

BTW, Travis E. & I "do not know the glory that is the...El Camino" mostly because we have some sense about us. But you're awfully cute for someone with poor taste in pseudo-car-truck-whatever-the-heck-that-is-es.

Aine said...

El Camino! LOL! (Just laughing because my sister once dated a guy who drove one...)

Jason has fun with stereotypes-- he's a Philadelphia lawyer who drives a pickup (and motorcycle), hunts and butchers his own kills, all while writing the most beautiful, sensitive poetry I've ever heard from a man.... Folks in the city are so confused by him.

Heff said...

Should I feel offended by this post ? Lol !

writtenwyrdd said...

I'm from California and I'm about as left-wing liberal as they come, but I love me those big ol' pickups, yes I do. I don't own one because they are environmentally friendly, but I did have a huge Dodge 3/4 ton when I was younger.

Lana, you cracked me up! My father, who is from North Carolina, has had what amounts to a freaking fetish about El Caminos.

writtenwyrdd said...

That should have said "they are NOT environmentally friendly," lol!

Charles Gramlich said...

Precie, I imagine folks would accept some stereotype breaking from the Joe character but I do think it illustrates how folks' minds naturally go.

Lana, I'm glad I'm cute at least.

Aine, I think people are generally surprised at folks when they really get to know them. None of us fits the perfect stereotype.

Heff, if the holster fits, dude.

Writtenwyrd, yeah, pickups are handy for a lot of things, but gas mileage isn't one of them.

Chris Eldin said...

Ha! I KNEW it was you!!

The first and best piece of writing advice I was given was to make the characters unique.


Chris Benjamin said...

when a writer can draw you into a stereotype and then surprise you with a character's actions, if it's done well it can be a lot of fun. stereotype or not, the characters i like best are the ones that are varied - heroes at times, weak at others, noble at times, cruel at others. and i think that is how most real people are too.

cs harris said...

Thought I recognized that guy! I like stereotypes that have an unexpected twist in them, but I think you're right--it needs to be introduced VERY early, so that it comes as an almost humorous twist. Otherwise it feels like a betrayal.

Charles Gramlich said...

ChrisEldin, Good advice, although making them unique in every way may not always work.

Benjibopper, there's definitely power in that kind of writing.

Candy, I do think you have to "lead" the reader, at least most readers.

FANCY said...

Com'n over and pic up your award in my place :)

Middle Ditch said...

Mmmmm, very thought provoking for me. Food for thought. Great post Charles and so was the previous one which was equally thought provoking. The gradual bending appeals to me.


Sarai said...

Interesting point. If I did it for myself I would break a bunch of rules but when I look at my writing I tend to stick to the sterotypes I know... words to chew on.

Shauna Roberts said...

Thanks for a great post. I have nothing illuminating to add on this issue; I sit humbly at the feet of you and your commenters.

laughingwolf said...

ye see the WOLF bike i posted a bit ago?

Charles Gramlich said...

Fancy, wow, thanks very much. I appreciate the thought.

Middle ditch, glad you found it useful.

Sarai, I think writing has to both break rules and follow rules. The trick is in figuring out which ones to follow and which ones to break.

Shauna, I've gotten some great commentary for sure. My last post triggered quite a few comments as well.

Laughingwolf, cool. I'll check it out.

Scott said...


I like the fact that you bought a machete...blades don't run out of ammo!

eric1313 said...

Right on.

The stereotypical characters are crucial to providing the gauge by which our "round" characters are judged within the context of a story.

We always need them, they have a purpose.

And truly, where would epic stories be without the ultimate stereotypes: Archetypes. Hell, any story, epic or mundane, fantastic or ultra-real.

You don't have a bad post do you?

Charles Gramlich said...

Scott, I also bought a cavalry saber.

Eric1313, good point about the stereotyped characters setting off our more rounded ones. Much appreciated.

Virginia Lady said...

I hate using stereotypes for just that reason. There are rarely any true-to-type stereotypes, but you can use them to make a reader better grasp a character and where they're coming from. You just need to be careful not to overdo it.

As for that El Camino lust, I have a husband that wouldn't mind owning one so I won't hold it against you. Thanks, but I'll stick with my pickup until I can go back to a two-seater sports car.

Another point to stereotypes, depends on the stage of life the character is in. Someone with multiple kids isn't likely to be driving a miata all the time and just because someone's packing heat doesn't mean they're a gun nut.

Barbara Martin said...

Bending a stereotype makes sense. I know I don't fit the one people have made of me, especially Patti Abbott: I owned and drove a pickup with a gunrack before my arrival to eastern Canada.

Michelle's Spell said...

This is a tremendously insightful post. I think it's a tough thing for a writer to walk the line between what's believable, what seems a little too pat, and also just making reality credible. People used to think I made things up until a visit to old Casa Brooks back in the day when my parents were alive made them say, Umm, okay, you're playing everything down. You really don't have to write fiction -- just record what's here. But the problem with fiction is that you do have to take into account the credibility factor. That's why I use the strangest stuff in my life for nonfiction. But I do love both forms!

Sarah Hina said...

Great illustration of a common smallness of thinking, Charles.

I want a motorcycle...

L.A. Mitchell said...

Finding the perfect balance between a fresh character and one that rings true is always a challenge. I've enjoyed your two posts on stereotypes.

Charles Gramlich said...

Virginia lady, exactly. But folks often assume someone who goes to gun shows is a gun nut. Stereotypes are always dicey affairs, inescapable under certain circumstances, but often dangerous.

Barbara Martin, there was a gun rack in almost all the pickups I rode in or drove as a kid/teenager.

Michelle, yeah, it's kind of strange how "real" events can be unbelievable if told in fiction. Fiction has such a delicate line between holding and losing the reader.

Sarah Hina, I'd like another bike too, but after totalling three of 'em I think I'm going to fight the urge.

L.A. Mitchell, thanks. It's definitely a tightrope act.

J. L. Krueger said...


Still catching up!

What I think is sometimes neat about using stereotypes in writing is to have the character go against type.

Get the reader thinking about the character one way based upon the stereotyped visualization, then reveal the "real" person beneath in the course of the story.

Charles Gramlich said...

J. L., twists like that often do work very well.