Advice for Writers: Stereotypes are your Enemy (But also Your Friends!)

If you’re a writer, you’ve heard it again and again: avoid stereotypes!

And it’s really good advice. First, it’s just plain boring when your characters act in a predictable, stereotypical fashion — when gay guys are snappy dressers with bitchy comebacks, when black women are always sassy, when disabled or autistic kids are always brilliant visionaries imbued with the superpower-like abilities or the wisdom of the universe, and when Christians are uptight and bigoted. We’ve been there and done that.

But even more importantly? Stereotypes are inaccurate.

Most gay guys aren’t bitchy, snappy dressers; most black women aren’tsassy, most autistic kids don’t have super-powers or know the wisdom of the universe; and most Christians aren’t uptight and bigoted. I’m not making this up: it’s the truth. And if you think any of these things are true, you aren’t getting out nearly enough.

Are there prominent, real-live examples of all of these stereotypes? Maybe.  But the reason why we remember these folks is because they reinforce the stereotypes. It’s just the way the human mind words: we seek out information that confirms the patterns in our brain, and we discount the information that contradicts it … at least until the evidence becomes overwhelming, and the pattern in our brain is rewritten.

(I think a big part of the reason why these stereotypes are so hard to rewire is, depressingly, because of media portrayals. Every time a writer resorts to a hackneyed stereotype, it gets further entrenched — and also a cute little kitten dies.)

My point is, good writing is about telling the truth — about convincing your reader that while your story may be entirely fictional, it has the “ring” of emotional truth and honestly. A reliance on hackneyed stereotypes screams to the reader that, no, your story doesn’t have the ring of truth.

Are you with me so far? I suspect you are, because I haven’t really yet said anything that almost all writing teachers say.

So here’s where I complicate things: sometimes stereotypes are good. In fact, usually they’re essential.

Think about this. Let’s say you’ve written a story set in the suburbs. You’re trying really, really hard to avoid stereotypes, so you make all the characters artsy, bohemian types. Everyone thinks outside the box and questions authority.

Wait. Are you sure you’re still in the suburbs? Sure, suburbs are not nearly the bastions of conformity that they’re sometimes made out to be, but … well, does this wild, free-thinking suburb have the ring of truth to you, at least short of some kind of other explanation for people being the way they are?

In short, you’ve gone from contradicting stereotypes to confusing the reader.

Stereotypes exist for a reason: they help us make sense of the world. They enable us to make snap-judgments — judgments that usually are, at least in a very general sense, right. We’re more likely to find an obscure indie ethnic restaurant in the city than we are in the suburbs.

As writers, we use stereotypes just like all people do: as shorthand. With a measured, effectively-placed stereotype, we don’t have to start with a completely blank slate. We assume some common knowledge, some agreed-upon expectations.

And the fact is, while extreme or overused media stereotypes are inaccurate, personality traits are not necessarily distributed randomly across all races, classes, and locales. Tendencies exist, and it’s obviously okay to reflect that in your writing. In fact, it’s required. Again, good writing is about truthfulness, right?

So what’s the distinction? When is something a “hackneyed stereotype” and when is something “reflecting the reality of the character and the situation”?

There’s the rub, isn’t it?

Here’s what I know.

(1) No person in the history of the world has ever been just a list of stereotypes. Even the most “typical” person of any race, class, sexual orientation, or situation has something about him or her that would surprise many people — something that contradicts the “usual” stereotypes. This isn’t political correctness, damn it: it’s literally the truth! And if you’re not reflecting this in your writing, you’re not telling the truth. You’re lying to your readers.

I’ll repeat this in a different way for emphasis: there is no such thing as “typical” anyway. We’re ALL a collection of crazy contradictions. Again, this is the truth. Reflect it or die.

And let’s face it: even if such a crazy-stereotypical person did exist, would you really want to write about him or her? Why? It’s a totally boring, predictable character! And the only writers who are drawn to these sorts of characters are people who are (a) stupid, or (b) have some kind of an agenda.

(2) Your characterizations of specific races, types, classes, and sexual orientations of people get better and better the more of those actual people that you know. Why would this be? Because as you have more real-world experience — as you get further from media portrayals of these people, which are often hackneyed and stereotypical, and closer to “reality” — you literally begin to rewire the patterns in your own brain.

The result? Your fiction begins to seem more and more “real” and “true.”

None of this is easy. Stereotypes are easy, which is why a lot of lazy writers employ them.

But one more time: good writing is all about telling the truth. Which is why the stereotype is always the beginning, never the ending, of a well-written character.