Stereotypes are oversimplified ways of cataloging groups of people based on the differences between them and other groups of people. They are sometimes rooted in fact, sometimes in prejudice, and if taken at face value, they contribute to intolerance and discrimination and limit people in their understanding of society. Stereotypes exist, and they will continue to exist as long as there is diversity between human individuals and a tendency in the human brain to compartmentalize knowledge as a way to reduce “thinking effort” (principle of minimal invested energy). Denying the existence of stereotypes doesn’t help anyone. If anything, we should talk openly about them and try to understand how they affect our thinking—and how they factor into fiction.
Characters, just like people, make good or bad first impressions. When characters first show up in a story, we immediately like them or dislike them based on a very quick and superficial evaluation. That evaluation is often marked by stereotypical thinking, but it is only the first step in the reader’s relationship with that new character. Ideally, it is followed by curiosity and emotional investment. There are a few ways in which writers can use the stereotypes rearing their heads in that “first contact” phase, to increase the reader’s investment in the characters later on.
How can writers use stereotypes to write better fiction?
While we all recognize that stereotypes are unfair, we can’t avoid running an inventory of them when we first meet someone new. It’s hardwired into our biology. It’s the quickest way for our brain to interpret the new information, and it considerably shortens our evaluation if that person is a threat to us or not, if he is similar to us or different. While it is socially and morally unacceptable to act on the stereotypes we hold, and actively discriminate against people, we can’t prevent our minds from considering them when we make a first impression of someone.
As writers, we can use this to our advantage when we introduce characters for the first time. A new character who immediately brings a stereotype to mind, is a character we feel we recognize and believe to know. But that’s also when our interest in him ends. A stereotypical character is boring, and as long as he remains that, we won’t engage with him. But if he breaks that stereotype (in a more or less obvious way), we become alert and curious about him. The part of our brain that constantly seeks to integrate new information into our worldview and improve our capacity to recognize threats, will immediately start to pay more attention because of that deviation from the lazy “comfort” of stereotyping.
Introduce a character via a stereotype, only to showcase how much bigger and more realistic that character is by breaking that stereotype and exceeding our expectations later.
“That’s part of the power of stereotypes — they set up expectations, so you can surprise your reader.” ~ Orson Scott Card, “Characters and Viewpoint”
Stereotypes can also be used to blend walk-on characters into the background, without distracting from the protagonist. These fill-in characters can come in, do their job, say a line or two and disappear again without chopping off a single splinter of emotional engagement from the reader. The easiest way to make them feel like real people without wasting as much as a paragraph on describing them, is to appeal to subconscious stereotypes. Give the reader the impression they already know all there is important to know about that character, by triggering the recognition of a familiar stereotype. And don’t worry about making these characters bland, they’re single-use characters, they’re not supposed to stand out.
Conversely, when you want a temporary character to stand out—by startling the protagonist (thus revealing something about the protagonist’s beliefs), antagonizing or supporting a certain mood, or creating a nuisance—you can do that by putting an obvious twist on an “invisible” stereotype. Such as having the smiling, friendly office clerk suddenly make a scene and call security when our protagonist walks in, because she’s mistaken him for a wanted criminal. Or having the leather-clad, muscle-packed bartender in a smoky Texan bar greet our protagonist with a Scottish accent and a big smile. Or having the little pony-tailed girl who our protagonist just pushed out of the way of an oncoming bus, scowl at him viciously and scream that she’s being molested.
Basically, the rule of thumb when using stereotypes in fiction is this — things that seem instantly familiar drop into the background, while things that break our expectations even by a little stand out. You can use this effect deliberately, or ignore it, but it will be there in the background of the reader’s mind. (Of course you don’t have to use stereotypes in the first impression stage, but it’s easier for readers to start from and correct a shallow first impression, than become interested in a character without face or contour.)
Depending on the story you write, you can use stereotypes for comical effect, to create contrast to other stories with the same types of characters, or to generate controversy. Or you can use stereotypes for an educational purpose. For example, by portraying a character’s struggle to overcome an offensive stereotype he’s being pushed into, or by giving the antagonist a stereotypical thinking and showing how it contributes to his demise in the end. Some of the best works of fiction in history have been about people trying to overcome an adverse environment, and the damaging stereotypes that people use against them.
Our instincts in this age of global, socialized information-sharing, are to avoid and shun stereotypes at all costs. Heavens forbid we be associated with any kind of injustice toward “other people”, we’d be publicly branded as ignorant and insensitive forevah. This has obvious and incontestable benefits as more and more people become aware of the faults of judgement underlying stereotypes, and their readiness to accept differences in people grows. But it also has a downside for fiction writers, because it makes those less experienced and sensitive become afraid to offend somebody with their stories. This systematic avoidance of anything that might be interpreted as offensive can even lead to cookie-cutter and bland fiction, with characters that don’t stand out because they don’t stand for anything, and themes that fail to stir any conflict or reconsideration in the reader. But that is a topic for another time.
Until then, I say writers can avoid supporting stereotypes by not allowing them to seep into their writing unnoticed. Instead, they can use them to evidence strength of character, use them to the advantage of the story as well as to the advantage of the readers. There is no need to be anxious about them, if we know what we’re doing. After all, all is fair in love and good storytelling.