I love the phrase “A place for everything and everything in its place.” No where does this apply more than choosing characters for your story. In most of the stories we write we choose characters that we identify with ourselves, but in some cases we have to choose a character that we don’t know. When we find ourselves in this situation it’s very easy to fall into the trap of creating stereotypes. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for them; usually in spoofs and standup comedy, but in most forms of genre fiction they have no place.
A stereotype is a generalized statement or classification of any group of people based on one or more character traits. Good examples of this include, all teenagers smoke pot and are obsessed with sex only; all Mexicans are lazy; all executives are power hungry, money obsessed people who would rather pay someone to tie their shoes than do it themselves. You get the idea. There are people like this that do exist, but on the whole these statements are completely untrue.
There are many kinds of stereotypes, and if you let them have their way, you will have to face the consequences. The use of this character type will limit your story to what you can write. You will develop a reputation as a shallow writer, and everything you write in the future, whether it’s good or not, will be regarded as “Hack writing”, that is, until you get your reputation back. It may take a couple of pieces but you can get it back.
How do you avoid the stereotype trap? One trap many writers fall into is trying to fit the character to the plot or the genre. A story should be first about the characters, and how they respond to a situation, and this will create the rest of the story. I’ve heard a lot of writers say, “let the character write the story.” If you do it the other way around, it will be impossible to avoid stereotypes.
Another trap was created by society, but that doesn’t mean you have to listen. This trap is the politically correct movement. When you try to create characters that are politically correct, you will be left with nothing but a sniveling coward of a character. You will limit what they say or do just because of who you might offend. What you are left with is a stereotype for a character, and a giant cliché for a story. Remember, you can’t please everyone, so why try.
This next trap was hidden in a movie I saw. Actually, it was obvious, but it tried to cover it up with humor and a cute story, and to many people it succeeded. This trap is trying to place an entire gender into two categories. The movie was “Shallow Hal”, and the stereotype was all young, slender, pretty girls were grotesque ugly people on the inside, and all fat ugly girls, on the outside were, ultra beautiful on the inside. This is a kind of reverse stereotype, and yes the movie was funny, but that doesn’t make the stereotype anymore real.
There are many kinds of stereotypes, in fact there are several books written about the subject. The point is, if you want characters that people can believe in, and characters that can write their own stories, avoid the stereotype, and develop the characters the right way.
Challenge: If you want a good book of writing exercises that help with proper character development try “The Writer’s Idea Book”.