Thursday, May 23, 2013

Characterization and Stereotypes

A few years ago I read a western tale involving the basic trope of settlers versus Indians. Afterward, I checked out the reviews and the writer had gotten grief from some reviewers because a Native American character who was treated decently by a white woman turned around and brutalized her. One particular reviewer clearly considered this a racist characterization. I didn’t see anything racist in it, particularly not when I looked at all the characterizations in the story.

In fact, I think some of the negative reviewers were the ones being racist, although in a very subtle and convoluted way. I think that many of the negative reviews came from folks who, not only carried a healthy dose of disgust at the way European settlers so often treated Native Americans, but also accepted the “noble savage" myth. With that viewpoint, any Native American character has to have an innate decency to match against and call attention to the brutality of the “civilized” white men.  One problem with this viewpoint is that the noble savage myth is indeed a myth, whether you're talking about American Apaches, African Bushmen, Australian Aborigines, or European Cro-magnons. None of these peoples, or a thousand other tribal societies, lived by some idealized civilized code of conduct.  Not only would it have been foolish for them to do so, but each was a completely realized and fully developed culture of its own, which did not necessarily value the same things as other cultures.


The worst part about this approach is that it actually diminishes those it seeks to promote. It turns them into less than full humans, draws them more as stereotypes (although a positive stereotype) than as living, breathing people.  The fact is, as I've argued before, the Native American tribes were completely and fully human in every way. That means they were capable of great bravery and great treachery, of innocence and evil, and of kindness and savagery.  They loved and they hated.  Their culture taught them different ways of dealing with the world than my culture has taught me.  And some of them, like with any group of humans, were just plain nasty sons of bitches.

It is not racist to have a Native American character who is a villain, no more than it’s racist to have a black character who is a criminal. Of course it is a problem if “all” of your Native Americans are villains, or all your black characters criminals. It’s also completely unrealistic.  It’s also unrealistic, however, if all your Native Americans are depicted as noble savages. It diminishes a people if you turn them into stereotypes, even if the stereotype is generally positive.

In the story I’m talking about at the top, the “kind” white woman was a Christian woman who had good intentions but who was treating the “Indian” character more like a wayward child than a complete and complex human being. What the story really showed was that a mixture of naivety and a holier-than-thou attitude can get you hurt.


This whole issue raises another point. You can’t judge a writer’s attitudes from the depiction of one character.  In a realistic world, any single character, of any ethnic type or any gender, could be a villain or a hero. Realistically, they’ll probably have some aspects of both. They’d show the traits that belong to all of humanity by virtue of our common biological origin. 
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25 comments:

Tom Doolan said...

Excellent food for thought! It's an easy trap to fall into steretypes, both as a writer and as a reader. I think people generally recognize that with writers, but often forget that the pitfall exists for readers as well.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Excellent points, Charles! People are people, no matter what their race or nationality, and all have the same basic human motivations, both positive and negative.

Charles Gramlich said...

Tom, yes, I think readers often fail to realize their own biases. I do sometimes.

Alex, thanks. Yes they are.

Ron Scheer said...

Good point. Robert Conley said recently that non-native writers shouldn't write about Indians unless they have fully studied the tribe their Indian character is from.

Reading 100-year-old westerns, I'm struck over and again by the assumption that a mixed race person displays the worst traits of both races. That is a notion that has been completely turned around in modern stories, where it's usually the reverse that is assumed by both writers and readers.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ron, knowing about the culture of various ethnic groups truly is important for fair and complete storytelling.

Lana Gramlich said...

Well said!

Deka Black said...

Clever points. . Nothing to ad, except the worse racism (if there's one worse than other) is the one directed towards ourselves. Don't know if i'm being clear, sorry

Cloudia said...

You said this so well!
These are the considerations that turn written matter into art and literature. Should be widely read. Your next edition of Writing with Fire?


Aloha

Charles Gramlich said...

Lana, thankee sweetums.

Deka, I'm not completely clear but certainly ethnic groups do hate on their own type of individual.

Cloudia, thanks for the kind words. I much appreciate it. :)

Riot Kitty said...

Good points, all. My family, incidentally, has ancestry of all of the following: Native Americans, people who killed Native Americans, and people who were killed by Native Americans. And as a descendant of Apaches, who declared guerilla warfare on the white man, I can tell you that noble can only go so far!

Charles Gramlich said...

Riot Kitty, our similarities are greater than our differences. no group has a monopoly on nobility or savagery.

sage said...

Yep, sin did come over with Columbus--it must have been the Vikings :) Good point about how positive stereotypes tend to dehumanize

Bernard Lee DeLeo said...

Your point could not have been expressed any better, my friend. Very well done.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sage, the Vikings got around it seems. :)

Bernard, thanks for the kind words. I much enjoyed Hard Case BTW, put up my review at Amazon and Goodreads.

laughingwolf said...

all 'savages' have 'goodness flaws', and vice versa; the tale revolves around the control, or lack of, same

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, aye, tis true.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Good post, Charles! Characterisation or stereotypes don't bother me much as they are a reflection of the writer's views or perception. I read a book without being too judgemental about it. I liked the way you summed up this post and agree with what Alex and Ron had to say too.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I totally agree with you. Anytime we begin to treat a group of people specially, it can be turned on them in a minute. And it is racism, isn't it?

Charles Gramlich said...

Prashant, sounds like as a reader you're doing it right. I try to do the same.

Patti, I believe it is.

Oscar said...

Writing a story as the author sees it isn't necessarily racism anymore than a person critical of it trying to make it into racism. In other words, it's in the eye of the beholder as to the intent the author had in mind.

Charles Gramlich said...

Oscar, absolutely.

RK Sterling said...

So glad for this post, Charles. Unfortunately, it seems many people forget to use logic in their haste to point out "wrongs".

Charles Gramlich said...

Kate, people love to 'getcha'

jodi said...

Charles, don't you think any characterization that is done with respect and content is okay? I do!

Charles Gramlich said...

Jodi, I'd tend to agree. I might have to give it more thought, though.