Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Please Stop Using Stereotypes

Back on the blog chain, we all talked about writing characters outside our comfort zone.  The topic of stereotypes came up and I think I made it clear that I had a strong reaction to it.

Here's the thing about stereotypes:  they're self-perpetuating truths.  A stereotype is created because a sizable number of people fit it (southern folk are stupid).  That stereotype is then repeated to us via television and movies and books and so forth.  This in turn causes people to believe that they SHOULD be that way, which reinforces the stereotype and makes more people try to fit in nauseam.

So there IS some truth to stereotypes.  Look hard enough and you're going to find some really stupid Southerners.  You'll also find uppity white Northerners who drive Volvos, and hipsters in skinny jeans who only listen to music okayed by Pitchfork.  BUT THAT DOESN'T MEAN IT'S OKAY TO USE THEM!

THE UNITED STATES OF TARA was one of my favorite new shows last year.  Not only is Toni Collette awesome, but they introduced a gay character who wasn't like any stereotype.  He was confident about who he was, shy in the way that all 15 y/o's are, but he had none of the typical angst that most stereotypical gay characters on TV have.  His parents didn't care, his friends didn't care.  It was a non-issue.  Except this season, he began questioning his sexuality.  Perfectly normal.  I think it has to be tough to decide your straight or gay without trying your options.  However, he eventually decided he was definitely gay.  He then decided to explore this with his new gay friend.  And what's the FIRST thing they did?  Snorted Adderall.

That's right, because apparently you can't be gay unless you're doing drugs.  It's in the handbook.  They turned the character into a cliché with one snort.  The writers leaned on a stereotype rather than write the character honestly.  Everything we'd been given to believe about the character up to that point was that he wasn't the kind of person who'd so something like that.

For me, that was the moment that the writers of the show gave up trying.  As writers, we want to surprise readers, we want to make them think.  Leaning on lazy stereotypes does the opposite.  It makes people turn off their brains.

So please, for the love of God, don't use stereotypes.  Use them as as a jumping off point if you absolutely need to, but then turn them on their head.  Take your fat, dumb Southerner and give him a doctorate in philosophy.  Take your gay character and make him star athlete.  Shake things up.  Set the world on fire just to see it burn.


  1. This is so funnny. I was talking about stereotypes with a co-worker because in one of the stories I'm critiquing (from my short story class), the writer used what I saw as a stereotype to depict her African American MC. This post is really good though, because you hit the mark. While there is some truth to stereotypes (in very limited degrees), we can't lean on them in our writing. For one thing, it's lazy writing. The other thing though is that it makes the character too predictable and boring, rather than someone we want to read about. Nice job, Shaun.

  2. But you know, going the exact opposite way (making your character the opposite of the stereotype in every way) can also feel forced. It's nice when you encounter characters who don't conform to stereotypes, but one stereotypical aspect of a character shouldn't define that character entirely.

  3. So true! I think they're a fine line between writing someone who's familiar without being stereotypical. Archetypes v. stereotypes. If you make it your own and put a spin on it, that should help quash the stereotype connection.


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