Wednesday, 21 November 2012

What I have Observed about Stereotyping Characters

Creating characters can be fun. But believable characters are essential to the reader in any type of fiction. In the absence of  photographs, pictures or other types of visuals, believable characters are created by words - so, how we describe our characters, and what we tell about them, what they say, how they say it, and their actions, are important.

Unless we want the reader to imagine it all, our characters must have physical appearance, a voice, thoughts, and feelings. Of those, physical appearance is easy for the reader to imagine, but voice, thoughts and feelings, are not. What they look like, what they wear, how they speak, what they think, and how they feel, individual quirks, are all important factors when creating three-dimensional characters. When the character is introduced to the plot, s/he should take over and come alive. By allowing the character to speak and act, the author gives them birth and existence. When they have life, they have personality and motivation. When we achieve this, the character will often take over, and do and say things the writer never thought to write. When this happens,it is pure magic!


How we depict our characters is important to how our readers grasp who they are. Using stereotypes enables the reader to quickly grasp the personality type. But some readers do not agree with or appreciate the use of some stereotypes, because many are negative, unhelpful, destructive, and create a barrier, in real life. EG - Fat women are greedy; or, Homosexuals are promiscuous., or, Lawyers tell lies.

Stereotyping is an exaggeration of some small observation of some individuals in a sector in society. So should we use it in our writing at all? Some readers find any stereotyping unacceptable. Even positive ones, because they are too much of a generalisation, and can be misused or cause misinterpretation. This is true. But is it ok to use stereotypes sparingly?

Many well known authors are guilty of stereotyping to some extent - small or large. And I believe this is why. They do it in order to create a quick characterization. To depict in a flash to the reader, what kind of man, woman, or child the character might be. This enables the reader to predict the behaviour of that character, for good or bad, and go along with what the writer has initially set up as the personality-type. The reader might even expect to predict an outcome for a given scene or even the whole novel - now they know the personality type.

But not all readers want this, nor do they want to predict the end, or the end of every scene, or the outcome of a behaviour of a certain character. So authors must know their readership, their genre, and therefore the expectations of the readers. Readers who do not like stereotyping, will not pick up a genre to read because of this, or an author who regularly stereotypes the characters in his/her novels. And authors who want to sail close to the wind on this, should realise this. Especially cross genre authors who want to attract a wider readership than their own regular market.

In modern novels, stereotyping seems less offensive in genre and commercial fiction. But even then, stereotyping should be done with care and sensitivity to the reader, who may take it personally, or broadly disagree. So it depends on how heavy the author relies on it for characterisation.

Readers of Literary fiction are more critical of stereotyping. The slower pace of literary novels together with the general nature of the Literary readership means that they are more accepting of characters who are not of a particular personality-type, or have set and predictable traits and behaviours, because, these readers invest more time in reading that slow-paced novel. In other words, the reader prefers characters who are more realistic rather than superheroes, who nearly always behave perfectly, and always get the girl in the end. Literary readers are more willing to go along with personalities that are closer to real people, less predictable, maybe appearing erratic at times, whilst serious and completely sober at other times. The character whose flaws seem too great to overcome. The varying behaviours depending on circumstance ... or maybe not. But it on the whole, it must make some sort of realistic sense.

Deeper understanding is crucial in literary characters - e.g. a person's past might be relevant to volatile behaviour and will affect their actions in the present and future. Circumstance and underlying issues are as essential as is change in character behaviour, as the plot continues. Literary readers want to see some change occurring during the course of the plot, because they too want to justify any deviation from reasonable behaviour at the end. It's only human. But none of this is absolute. It is one of the differences between Commercial fiction characters, and Literary characters. In the end, Literary readers are more willing to put up with more uncertainty, and less predictability, while Commercial readers are just the opposite. In general.

This is why stereotyping works for more Commercial fiction than Literary. It is an easier way to slot in characters so that our readers discover quickly who they are, and what to expect, and then move straight through a fast plot. But even then, the author must be careful. Readers are not stupid, and have their own individual views. And many Commercial readers as well will not tolerate deep over-stereotyping. But Literary readers go even further, and are more discerning and far less tolerant. And as they plough through a novel painstakingly, they do not expect to have to predict for themselves, but expect more from the author's ability to stretch them on many levels of understanding, even though the plot might be light.

Personally, as a reader, I want the author to work hard at gaining my approval. And to be perfectly honest, why ever not? I will have invested time and money in that novel.  (Though not as much time as the author has!) But readers rarely realise this as they seek satisfaction from the novel they've just read.

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