I used to work in security. One of the guys I worked with was this huge Russian bouncer guy: nearly seven feet of muscle-gut and bald head, tattoos on his hands, gold tooth. You know the guy I’m talking about, don’t you?
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.
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