“A stereotype may be negative or positive, but even positive stereotypes present two problems: they are clichés, and they present a human being as far more simple and uniform than any human being actually is.”
We had a guest pastor preaching at our church this last weekend, speaking on the subject of marriage. That’s a pretty big canvas for a 40-odd minute sketch to fill, but he gamely dipped his brush in the paint and slapped it on vigorously. (Although I was both surprised and a little crestfallen that he didn’t start by gazing across the congregation and solemnly intoning, “Mawwige… mawwige is wot bwings us togevver today” --- if the Impressive Clergyman of Princess Bride fame could do it with a straight face, I thought our guest pastor also could have --- but apparently my sense of humour is just a little too eclectic for a sermon.) It was a pretty good message all in all, but when my wife asked me afterwards what I thought of it, I expressed my disappointment that he employed the usual hoary old stereotypical image of all males as sex-crazed, sports obsessed morons. My wife has somehow managed to perfect the technique of rolling her eyes without really rolling them, favouring me with that sideways look of hers I’ve come to know very well over the years.
“Well,” she observed mildly, “that’s because so many of them are.”
“I’m not,” I retorted.
“Wouldn’t have married you if you were,” she informed me. “But that doesn’t change the truth about his ‘stereotypical’ image of men.”
Yeah, well. Game, set and match to my wife. (Is that a correct sports metaphor? I’m not completely sure. Because no, I’m not sports-obsessed. In fact, I tend to agree with Orwell’s famous dictum about organized sport… yeah, that one concerning sports being not about fair play, just war minus the shooting.) Because the thing about stereotypes is, neatly wrapped up in the two diverging points of view quoted at the head of this post, there’s a very simple reason why they exist and why we employ them all the time in literature and film: because real-life people make them true, even though they paint a very incomplete picture of the subtle realities behind those stereotypes. I suppose, on one level, stereotypes are a kind of Occam’s Razor in humanity’s endless preoccupation with navel-gazing. (William of Occam, a 14th century English cleric and philosopher, famously observed that, all else being equal, the simplest answer to a problem is usually the correct one.) Humans are simultaneously hideously complex --- witness the stereotype of males constantly and vainly attempting to understand the female --- and at times laughably simple --- witness the existence of stereotypes. So reducing human nature down to a few basic stereotypes is understandable.
As Nancy Kress observes, they only reveal a part of the whole. As writers, we need to be aware of that and make sure we don’t fall into the trap of making stereotypes of our characters. That laughing, sneering villain twirling his moustache as he ties the helpless maiden to the railway tracks? There needs to be a reason why he’s like that, and it would be very helpful for us to know, or at least suspect it --- or he’s just a caricature of a real human being, that is, a stereotype. Providing the reader some backstory why he is the way he is --- and just so you’re aware, we don’t necessarily need to know every last aching detail about it, just enough to tantalize and whet our appetites --- will add depth and richness and realism to him.
Sometimes it’s a relatively easy job to head character stereotypes off at the pass before they get a chance to become hoarily entrenched. Case in point: like many before him --- and, I’m sure, after --- Rhiss, the valiant (if slightly bemused and reluctant) protagonist of my novel Gryphon’s Heir has a mentor. When I began writing the novel, that mentor was an older man named Arias. But it wasn’t long (to my credit, he said modestly) before I realized I had fallen into the Stereotype Trap of Young Man Being Mentored By Older And Wiser Man… at which point Arias immediately and unceremoniously became Arian. Female. (Wham. She never knew what hit her, poor old gal.) Still older than Rhiss, but definitely female, which ultimately provided me with much richer grist for the literary mill, what with the difference in genders and strong female characters and all.
So… acknowledge the fact that stereotypes exist… but as a student of human nature, understand that they’re likely a front put up by people using simplicity to mask complexity. And as a writer, you need to rule stereotypes so they can’t rule your story. In other words… twirl dem mustaches… but let the reader see some of the angst behind that villainous laugh.