Stereotypes are bad, right? They’re clichéd stock characters that rob your story of originality and immediacy. Readers realize they’ve read about these characters in dozens of other stories, lose interest, and cast the book aside. True enough, so far. But what we often fail to realize is that stereotypes can be successfully applied in two ways: we can use them and we can play off them.
Because stereotypes are widely recognized, they provide us common ground with the reader. From that starting place, we then have the option of using the reader’s expectations to our advantage in any number of ways. In Characters & Viewpoint, science-fiction legend Orson Scott Card explains:
As storytellers, we can’t stop our readers from making stereotype judgments. In fact, we count on it. We know of and probably share most of the prejudices and stereotypes of the community we live in. When we present a character, we can use those stereotypes to make readers think they understand him.When we introduce a computer nerd, a cowboy, a scientist, a politician, or a pilot, our readers immediately have preconceived ideas about this character. We don’t have to tell them the cowboy wears boots and rides a horse anymore than we have to explain that the politician dresses in suits and smiles and shakes hands on a frequent basis. Because readers already know about these archetypes, we can save valuable time and space that might otherwise need to be filled with descriptions and explanations.
To some extent, readers even enjoy stereotypes. We deliberately choose to read about cowboys and pilots because these characters possess certain traits we admire and enjoy. However, the line between successfully using a stereotype and abusing it to the reader’s boredom is a fine one. John Truby, in his marvelous book The Anatomy of Story, cautions:
An archetype resonates deeply with an audience and creates very strong feelings in response. But it is a blunt tool in the writer’s repertoire. Unless you give the archetype detail, it can become a stereotype.The solution is to play against the stereotype by crafting unique, realistic personalities that break the bounds of expectation. When characters act in ways the reader wasn’t expecting, the reader’s curiosity is immediately piqued. He wants to know why this politician gets away with wearing cut-off shorts to work or why this girl who looks like a computer nerd is really a fashion model.
The first time we meet a person in real life, we inevitably make assumptions about him from his appearance and mannerisms. In short, we stereotype him. But when we get to know him better, his individuality reveals itself, and we realize he is an indefinably unique person who breaks the expectations of his stereotype in many ways. Characters are no different. If you met your character on the street, what stereotype might he appear to fulfill? Which of those stereotypical traits can you use and which can you play against to make the most of your reader’s inevitable preconceptions?
Related Posts: The Myth of Originality
Making Cliches Work for You
Variations on a Theme
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Story by K.M. Weiland