Before we knew how to talk about it, the gender gap was just a given.
Without needing to say much at all, you probably have a mental image of this guy. He’s a stereotype. So are Harry Potter (abused child genius, complete with baggy hand-me-downs, messy hair, and broken glasses), Batman (rich handsome white guy), Katniss Everdeen, Anna Karenina, and King Solomon. Practically every character in modern (and pre-modern) storytelling conforms to the stereotype of what that ‘kind’ of person should be. One could even argue that character creation is in fact the art of creating stereotype: you are quite literally creating a person, with a personality, formed for the express purpose of acting a part within your story.
A stereotype is a thought that can be adopted about specific types of individuals or certain ways of doing things, whether or not that perception is accurate or founded in reality… and this is where stereotyping becomes an interesting tool in the hands of a writer.
Playing the part
Stereotypes are psychological shorthand. Humans weren’t really built to deal with communities spanning millions or billions of people. We have a hard limit on the number of faces we can recognize, which is one of the reasons that people from different countries often perceive foreigners as ‘looking all the same’. Because we have limitations on our processing power, the human brain looks for patterns. We do this with physical things, such as clouds, and also with social patterns. Conspiracy theories and stereotypes are born from the same need to make sense of the randomness we see around us.
This leads to an interesting phenomenon. Because humans are instinctive pattern seekers, and because most of us enjoy living in communities, we begin to internalize certain stereotypes based on the glimpses of pattern around us, internalize them, and practice them. This is particularly true in the arenas of life where presentation and appearance are important. There’s reasons we have mousy librarians, edgy tattoo artists, big tough firefighters, geeky scientists and nerdy I.T specialists. Stereotypes have evolved in the micro-cultures of libraries, tattoo parlors, fire houses, laboratories and cubicle farms, because the jobs favor certain types of personalities and physical builds. Once the pattern is noticed, it becomes self-reinforcing. The CEO of a big I.T corporation is interested in hiring people who look the part because they associate the stereotypical presentation with the qualities they require from an employee. Over time, the company’s software developers will naturally conform to the stereotypes established by that corporation. There are exceptions… but there are fewer exceptions in society than we’d like to admit.
What this means is that we tend to assume and embody certain stereotypes ourselves, and we do this to get to where we want to go. By doing this, it can seem like we are almost destined for a certain fate, and those who buck the trend (by appearing somehow stereotypical while aspiring to something else that others do not ‘type’ them for) invite conflict and resistance from the majority. This is particularly noticeable in, say, women who work in blue collar occupations. They have to fight twice as hard for twice as long to be taken seriously. Yet, in doing so, they often find themselves conforming to a ‘female cop’ or ‘female electrician’ stereotype to survive. Those who cannot do so often buckle under the twin pressures of the establishment and the alternative. It takes incredible personal energy to truly walk alone.
What this also means is that stereotypical presentation is often quite superficial. A person may walk the walk (or stroll the stroll, in the case of supermodels), but underneath that facade is still an entire person. And that unseen inner self… they may not conform to a stereotype at all.
What kinds of stereotypes do your perspective characters believe exist in the different social groups around them? What kind of stereotypes does your character use to get their way in society… and are they aware that they are doing this? Is it comfortable, or uncomfortable?
In either case, reversing their self-concept – either by making them conform, or making them realize that they can’t – is an excellent avenue for conflict.
Self-enforcement of stereotypes can mix in with the person we really are.
Have you ever wondered why people, by and large, seem so shocked when priests are caught out abusing children, or why every conservative ‘family values’ politician caught in a truck stop bathroom with a rentboy is a ‘scandal’? That is the full power of stereotypes at work. They have assumed the role of kindly priest or straight-laced senator… because they are consciously or unconsciously aware of the power they have to manipulate others in that role while they do what they actually want to do. These people often go so far as to disassociate from their real inner selves, believing that their stereotypical role is ‘them’, and that the emotionally complex or neurotic self is ‘not them’. These sick people feel very strongly that their dark sexual or homicidal or sadistic impulses are from ‘somewhere else’ that is not ‘them’.
And now we know why The Devil was invented. Imagine the potential that this offers you as a writer.
If you struggle to create compelling, believable antagonists and villains, this is how you do it. Have a look at who your antagonist is, what they do. Why do they do that thing? And what is their self-stereotyping hiding from themselves?
Stereotypes are, by and large, a great thing for those in power, and dehumanizing and limiting for those subject to that power. This is why we have stereotypes of Philanthropic Wealthy White Men and Drug Addicted Homeless Bums, which is enforced externally (from the media and society) and internally (by the standards of the micro-culture). Reinforcement can be positive or negative, but it all leads to the same thing. Those in power tend to receive more favourable, empowering stereotypes than those who do not have power. Even when unfavourable, those in power tend to be able to get away with things that other groups cannot. The media invented the word ‘affluenza’ based on one such stereotype – the Misunderstood Rich Teenager.
Stereotype content refers to the attributes that people think characterize a group. These attributes – positive or negative – tend to be what we first think when we hear someone is from a particular group, and this is one way that a group will establish and maintain power over other groups. Many people don’t see the harm in certain racial stereotypes – the Smart Asian Kid stereotype, for example (Cho Chang, anyone?). The reason this is actually a pretty awful racist trope is that the stereotype does nothing to empower the people it claims to represent while also rendering invisible those who do not conform to the stereotype (what about the Chinese artists, Indian adventurers, Thai philanthropists, the American-Korean winemakers..?). In addition, the ‘Smart Asian Kid’ trope furthers the myth of other less positive stereotypes that disempower Asian communities as whole – mostly ones about immigration, a lack of masculinity (in men) and victimization (in women). And what the hell does ‘Asian’ mean, anyway?
Remember the outrage over images of Syrian refugees charging their cell phones? The stereotype of the refugee does not match the reality (that most Syrians able to flee their country were middle or upper class, in terms of income), and so many people cannot believe they are ‘refugees’. By obliterating complexity and nuance, stereotypes are used to disempower and silence entire swathes of the population. Those in power also have a tendency to ‘lock in’ stereotypes and refuse to change their assumptions about other people based on any range of superficial qualities. The ridiculous arguments used to enforce anti-transgender ‘bathroom laws’ are a case in point. Stereotypes are used to explain social events… or explain them away.
The saddest thing about this is that stereotyping often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Socially marginalized people are angry people, and economically disenfranchised people still have to find ways to pay the rent and put food on the table. They are often compelled to resort to the path of least resistance.
What does this have to do with you as a writer, you may ask? Two things:
- Whose story are you telling? Really? And why are you telling it?
- How do your characters wield power within the story? Are they aware of their power, or the lack of it? Those who have less power are usually sensitive to their lack of agency; those who have power are often quite unaware, considering themselves ‘normal’ and everyone else ‘other’.
Making characters memorable
As I pointed out early on, many memorable and beloved characters are actually stereotypes – or, more accurately, they are typical for their genre, which is itself stereotypical. We know what kinds of characters to expect in spy novels, mysteries, romances and fantasy*.
However, just because one feature of a character can be categorized as being typical does not make the entire character a stereotype, and this is where you, the writer, have the ability to manipulate your reader’s expectations. And as well you should.
If you dig under and around and through the stereotypes that are relevant to you and your work, you will never have a boring bit-character ever again.
By being aware of your own favorite stereotypes and by doing your research to dig underneath the stereotype you hold of any particular group, you can teach yourself and your readers something new about people through what you write – or you can reinforce existing perceptions.
Remember my huge Russian bouncer friend from the first paragraph? He was a shift manager, and also the best ‘talker’ on the weekend nightshift team. I watched him talk down big men, small men, women of all sizes and levels of intoxication in the same calm, well-mannered, witty way. He was a very softly spoken, very intelligent man who enjoyed classical Russian literature and told a lot of interesting stories… including the ones about the tattoos on his hands.
* Interestingly, science fiction is one of the few genres where it is more difficult to predict the social stereotype of a character in any given novel or film. This has a lot to do with the progressive avant-garde nature of the genre… and is one of many reasons why the ‘Sad Puppies’ are indeed sad, small little people for trying to rig the Hugos.
Fear is not something often talked about in conjunction with writing. But after receiving (yet another) partial manuscript request from an agent today, fear is very much at the forefront of my mind.
When I was starting out writing, I was always hysterically happy about partial or full requests. Someone likes my work! Lots of requests mean it’s a matter of time before representation, right?
That’s what everyone around me said (and still says), but in my heart, I don’t believe it’s true.
I’ve had about 50 rejections on this manuscript, and about half of those have been based on partial or full manuscript rejections. Agents are only human, and they make requests and scrutinize manuscripts with their own kind of jaded cynicism.
If you kick a dog in a cage enough times, the dog will cease being vicious and simply become apathetic and afraid, a state of affairs known as ‘learned helplessness’. Learned helplessness is caused by a combination of pain and the inability to escape that pain… and unpublished writers are, quite literally, powerless in their dealings with agents and publishers. We can’t set deadlines without being thought of as rude. ‘Wannabe’ writers are regularly mocked by industry professionals on social media, sometimes deservedly, other times not. You can’t call, you can’t make any demand. You submit and wait anywhere between two weeks and two years for confirmation that your work is worthy – or more often that it ‘doesn’t grab me enough for me to work with it’. It is painful. You can’t tell them why they’re wrong. That’s ‘unprofessional’. It is a system purposely created to disempower. I now expect punishment, so whenever an agent emails me back, I don’t get excited: I cringe.
This isn’t leading into some kind of pro-self publishing talk, either. Self-publishing is just as fearsome. It is the ultimate gambit. Your book can be the most amazing thing ever written, but you are tossing your glass of champagne into a sea of piss. Maybe it’s 1/4th champagne, but no one can tell unless you point to the patch where your book is and scream ‘look!’. I have decided to self-publish this first manuscript, and while I am excited, I am fearful.
Being looked at is frightening. Not being looked at is frightening. This paradox is one of many that we contend with as authors.
I remember reading a variation of this quote in a Harry Potter book when I was in my late teens. It’s the only thing that ever really stuck with me – the notion that courage is persisting through fear, not the absence of fear. I grew up thinking that brave people were fearless, but they’re not. They are afraid and do it anyway.
I think all writers have to be pretty brave, by that standard.
I’m about 65,000 words into Strange Fruit, the second book in the Alexi Sokolsky novel series. And I want to give up.
Now… that doesn’t mean I WILL give up. But I want to.
I recently got my first full-time office job. For most people, moving into white-collar mediocrity is, at best, a pleasant stroke of luck and one that they largely hope for and expect after leaving school. For me? It’s nothing short of a miracle. By all rights, I should have been dead years ago. People with my kind of history have the odds pointing them to prison, drug addiction, suicide or reoccurring homelessness. But somehow, I managed to not become a drug-addicted suicidal homeless person, and I now have a pod and a business phone number and no less than three suits. I am now comfortable. And it feels bizarre.
Twenty years ago, I was living hand-to-mouth in a women’s shelter with my mother. I was homeless. It seemed that every other day, someone or something would try to kill us. We often went without substantial food. When we were at our worst off, we didn’t have gas or electricity. I used to horde corn, because my biggest comfort food as a kid was a can of corn (with the water) and some butter mixed up as a kind of soup. When canned corn is the highlight of your day, you know shit is FUBAR.
That was twenty years ago. Now, as an adult, I have the perpetual sense that a bomb is waiting to explode somewhere. Not a literal bomb (though sometimes – I am pretty high-strung), but a metaphorical one. Or, perhaps literal in the sense that I expect SOMETHING to come crashing in to destroy my life.
As you may or may not know, writing is essentially professional gambling. No matter how gifted, talented, persistent or productive you are, the best result of all of your particular circumstances and abilities is to lift the odds. Slightly. If your daddy or your uncle is in Penguin, you have a better chance – but not a guaranteed entry, even then. Because they, and everyone else in publishing, is also gambling – every book they invest into and publish is a gamble they make to bring in money. And so every writer, no matter how gifted or well-endowed with wordsmithery, can expect to be rejected over, and over, and over. They can expect their sales to go up and down, their books to fall in or out of fashion, or to lie dormant for 15 years before their buddy decides they want to make a TV show out of it and it mysteriously and suddenly becomes a multi-million dollar phenomenon (Game of Thrones, Game of Thrones *cough cough*). For every George R.R Martin, though, there are a thousand Nancy Nobodies who never get past the front desk of a literary agent.
People ask how Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey got published. After several years in the industry, I can tell you: luck. Pure dumb luck. The way that Harry Potter got published. The way that Dr. Seuss got published. The way that even hard-working and relentless Steven King got published, though he boosted his odds with huge output and by pushing on through rejection.
My corn-loving ragamuffin of an inner child looks at that scenario, and goes: “Fuck that noise: I just want to eat.”
And so, here I am: sitting on a 65K manuscript, a book coming out in October (unless I am also very lucky, and the agent who is reading Blood Hound at the moment decides to take it on), and one other non-fiction title that I hope will be coming out in December, and I wonder… should I bother? Or should I just focus on my time-consuming but stable full-time job?
But the fact remains that writing brings me the greatest joy. There’s no glow quite like the glow of holding a book in your hands, in the magic of creating something out of nothing. And it is magical: the root of Occult magic was the inscription of letters, sigils and other symbols with the goal of creating an effect. Writing does that. It is a form of magic, whether you are writing science fiction, fantasy, or romance.
That magic is why I doubt I will give up, despite the fatigue and the odds of getting published. But I want to.
Another reason I don’t want to give up is because I get photos from my fans holding my books, like this one. Look at that smile! God Has Heard goes to another good home.
This is a public service announcement for anyone publishing (or interested in) publishing online.
There is a new start-up writer’s site with a very dodgy business model currently sending out emails for their ‘beta’ trial. They send a very emotionally manipulative template email which (almost) reads as if it was personal:
“Hi, James Osiris,
I’m Robert, and I’ve been a big fan of web fictions and fan fictions for many years. I’m amazed by the talent of many internet writers and the countless fascinating stories I can find online. I came across your story, LILIUM – God Has Heard (Book 1), on Web Fiction Guide and enjoyed it very much and really hope that you are generously rewarded for your hard work.”
The email goes on to try and press the signup on you.
I read over the ByChapter website, which purports to pay you ‘points’ for your work. Every 100 words nets you one point. 100 points is worth $1 (minus the ‘loyalty fee’, which I imagine being collected by knuckle-dragging gorilla men with Long Island accents). There is no disclosure of publishing rights taken, use of your work, nothing. Just a vague promise of being paid peanuts via a dubious ‘points’ system.
This was a good approximation of my reply (the original was lost in the Interwebs somehow after I sent it, and won’t appear in my sent folder):
I was genuinely touched by your template email and generic boilerplate introduction. After considering the amount of time and effort you must have put into phishing the Web Fiction Guide to find my name and title, I found myself excited. Wondering. “Could it be? Could there at last be an entrepreneur who wants to help writers instead of profiteering off their work?”
Not a fucking chance.
You see, Robert, back in the day, companies used to pay their workers in something called scrip. Scrip was basically company-issued currency which company men could only use to purchase items at company-owned stores, and which was worthless anywhere else. They only got whatever the company gave them, when they wanted to give it to them, in the quantities they could be fucked providing.
You are proposing to pay writers – who are already being screwed by people outsourcing and over-commercializing their art and effort – in company scrip. It takes me around 4 hours to write 2500 words of quality draft material, then around another 8 to edit it into a final publishable form. For 12 hours work, posting on your website, I can look forward to a grandiose daily salary of $2.50. That’s enough to buy a tub of yogurt and a packet of ramen. One packet. Assuming, that is, that you don’t just randomly close down, redact, or mix up my number of points.
Your email is emotionally manipulative, but it will no doubt seduce young writers desperate for praise, even though they would make more money and make better use of their time giving back alley handjobs. You are a parasite. Your business model is simply yet another blood-sucking crab in the unwashed pubic hair of the internet freelance market.
On the off chance you are actually a reader who is interested in my work and genuinely wants to support artists, you can find God Has Heard on Amazon for the princely sum of $7.77, in real actual spendy money, at this link: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00J3XYUYM.
My Name Is
James Osiris Baldwin.
P.S – Your website does not mention the terms and conditions, or the publishing and serialization rights you hope to claim. That might give you place to start.”
The thing that pissed me off about this particular campaign was the ‘I read and loved your work!’ part of the boilerplate. It pushes the sore deep bruise that nearly every writer has – the desire to have our work validated and loved by strangers – in an effort to exploit us. I HATE this.
Beware of scams. Never sell yourself short. Your work is your time and energy in physical form. Even the scribbled out draft pages of your manuscript is worth more than $1 per fucking 1000 words.