3 Ways to Make Character Stereotypes Work in Your Story

Why Character Stereotypes Are a Good ThingCharacter 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. Right?

True enough, so far.

However, what authors often fail to realize is that character stereotypes can be successfully applied in several ways: you can simply use them, you can carefully select them for maximum effect, or you can play off them.

1. How to Use Character Stereotypes

Because stereotypes are widely recognized, they provide you common ground with your readers. From that starting place, you then have the option of using readers’ expectations to your 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 you introduce a computer nerd, a cowboy, a scientist, a politician, or a pilot, your readers immediately bring up their preconceived ideas about this character. You don’t have to tell them the cowboy wears boots and rides a horse anymore than you have to explain the politician dresses in suits and smiles and shakes hands.

Because readers are already familiar with these archetypes, you can save valuable time and space that might otherwise need to be filled with descriptions and explanations.

2. How to Choose Character Stereotypes

To some extent, readers even enjoy stereotypes. They deliberately choose to read about cowboys and pilots because these characters possess certain traits they admire and enjoy.

However, the line between successfully using a stereotype and abusing it to the reader’s boredom is a thin  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.

3. How to Play Against Character Stereotypes

The solution is to play against the stereotype by crafting unique, realistic personalities that break the bounds of expectation. When characters act in ways readers weren’t expecting, readers’ curiosity is immediately piqued. They want 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?

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What character stereotypes have you used in your work-in-progress? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Great post!

    The most interesting characters come from what we least expect them to be.

  2. There’s an interesting balance in fiction: We read because we want to be assured of the familiar, but also because we long to experience the unfamiliar.

  3. Wow, I’ve always been told to stay away from sterotypes when writing… but I’ve never thought of this! Great post! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    Tessa

  4. There’s nothing new under the sun. None of us can write entirely original characters. But if we understand what stereotypes are and how they do and do not work, we’re way ahead of the game.

  5. I have one character who almost is a sterotypical ‘prodigal son’–except he gets dragged back against his will, which backfires on the ‘getting him to repent thing’

  6. Sounds like an interesting take. Sometimes the best way of creating an original character is to take a definitive stereotype – and throw in a surprising twist.

  7. I like messing with sterotypes, though I don’t think it gives me entirely original characters, per se.

    Curse you, writers who came before me!

    …Wait, that includes Jane Austen and K.M.

    Okay, I take it back!

  8. All writers have the same world and the same basic human types with which to work. There are only so many variations to be created. Our originality comes from our combination of *all* the various elements of fiction much more so than it does from just one “original” idea.

  9. Interesting points! I try to use ‘stereotypical’ characters as walk-on roles–they’re there, then you don’t see them again, or if you do, it’s only briefly.

    As for stereotypes my MC may fulfill, after thinking about it, the MC in Homebody would probably resemble a typical college kid instead of the burgeoning real estate magnate and politician she is. At least on outward appearances. She hates to dress up, and is most comfortable in ratty jeans and a six-year-old campaign shirt! :p (Okay, so you probably wouldn’t find your typical college kid in a campaign t-shirt, but she’s not exactly who you’d expect to be on the verge of running for Congress!)

  10. Walk-on roles are always interesting opportunities for busting stereotypes, but you have to be careful, since you don’t want to much emphasis on minor characters.

  11. One villain in my current WIP is not what you would expect the first time I introduce the character. That’s because I don’t want you to know he/she is the villain until I’m ready for you to know. I played off a stereotype to do it, so your article is very timely. Thanks, sister.

    ~ VT

  12. Establishing a stereotype and turning it completely on it’s head always has interesting possibilities. Thanks for reading!

  13. This is so helpful for me. I sometimes spend too much time making my character NOT a stereotype that I get bogged down.

    In fact, I have a character who is a pilot and also embodies some stereotypes of a cowboy. Good or bad? So far, I think it works.

  14. Combining archetypal traits is a good way to simultaneously use and play against stereotypes. The options are endless!

  15. Thank you for this thought-provoking piece. Lots to reflect on here.

  16. Hope something comes in handy when you’re crafting your own characters.

  17. I’m fighting stereotypes right now with “Counterattack.” We have these preconceived notions about what aliens are. They’re either friendly (Think “ET”), warlike (Think “Independence Day”), pseudo friendly (Think “V”) or benevolent (Think “Star Wars.”)

    I want the Talari to be different. I want them to be ALIEN. Their psychology should be completely opaque. We don’t know WHY they arrived and started wiping out humanity. We don’t even know if it’s because they see us as a threat or as a source of food.

    Maybe they’re just pissed at the way we treat snails. Who knows?

    All we know is that when we look at them, they hurt our eyes with their incomprehensible shapes and proportions, and when we fight them, we die in waves.

    In fact, I want them to be so shrouded that I’m up against a rather irritating plot point:

    How in the heck do we find out they’re called the Talari, anyway?

  18. Sounds pretty alien to me. The questions you pointed out here are enough to pique my curiosity.

  19. I’d love to hear your comments on the prologue, Katie. I know you’re busy as sin and don’t have time to read every aspiring writer who requests it, but if you get a few moments, feel free to drop by my blog.

    The link to the prologue is here: http://chrisrivan.blogspot.com/2010/04/flash-fiction-first-contact.html .

  20. Thanks for your comments, Katie. I’m replying here so you don’t have to go wandering around to find my acknowledgment.

    I am very grateful for every second of your time. Thank you. I will not make a habit of bleating for your input on my writing, I have only the vaguest idea how busy you are and certainly don’t want to add to the stack. Hopefully when CA is finished I can slip an eBook onto your stack for later enjoyment down the road by way of further thanks.

    I really appreciate it.

  21. Great post! This really echoed how I feel about stereotypes and twisting cliches.

  22. Some of the best characters are those that started out as cliches and were turned on their heads.

  23. Stereotypes have nothing to do with character personality. Asians are good at math, that’s a stereotype. The soldier who does what he thinks is right, and is blind to all other things deeming them not in the right because they do not adhere to the most literal aspect of the letter…. is an archetype.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There is definitely a point to this. But, by the same token, many archetypes end up becoming stereotyped simply by how they’re consistently portrayed.

  24. I never knew stereotypes can be a good thing. I should consider that, though I should try archtypes as well, and play against some stereotypes so that I don’t bore the readers.

  25. I find stereotypes useful when describing minor characters. You do a quick word-sketch and readers know what sort of person your MC is dealing with. Because they only have a few minute’s screen time, that’s okay. It’s not longer than when you interact with such people at the shops or on the train.
    Want to use it for a main character? Oh, please, please do! Give him or her a twist (the nerd who works out, the man who looks nerdy but knows nothing about computers-and gets annoyed because people expect him to!) or even better: make him or her true to stereotype YET STILL INTERESTING (even harder to do :D)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This isn’t to say, of course, that we *can’t* play against type for minor characters. But the more unique the character, the more interested readers will be in him, and the more likely they’ll be to expect to see more of him.

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