Stereotypes – Pros and Cons

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Writers have a love/hate relationship with stereotypes. Beginning writers are told to avoid stereotypes at all cost, as it is lazy characterization. This is true. A stereotype is flat and uninteresting. You certainly want avoid having a main character who is nothing but a cipher.

I work better with examples. Let us examine the stereotype of the mad scientist. Oh, the issues I have with this stereotype! Scientists are meant to be rational and logical, but for some reason Doctor Frankenstein has become the model for every scientist in fiction, as he is the classic mad scientist who has meddled with forces that ‘humankind should know not what of’ and has been turned mad. The subgenre of this stereotype is the absent-minded or muddled scientist … too interested in her/his work to keep contact with the realities of day-to-day life. Writers – who have often been characterized as airy-fairy and out-of-touch-with reality as absent-minded professors – should know better than to buy into the hype.

On a tangent: an absent-minded scientist in academia would have the survival value of an ice cube in hell. The concept was the invented by the Disney corporation, the same people who brought to the world the ‘lemmings jumping off cliffs’ scenario.

Back on topic: If I write about a scientist who is a main character, like my main protagonist in my Steampunk novel, I do not depend on the stereotype as a part of process. I try to ignore the stereotype and write a well-rounded character based on what I know of real-life scientists.The character will have flaws and foibles, but she (or he) certainly isn’t mad, insane or bewildered.

However, what if you writing about a ‘walk on’ character that might have just one or two sentences dedicated to their appearance in the Work-in-Progress (the WiP)? In a case like this, you can use a stereotype to help round out the incidental character without having to waste more words on their description than is necessary. You need a scientist to invent a new gizmo? Turn the stereotype on its head, and have her (or him) be focused and fun and completely sane. That is when you can make a stereotype work for you.

So, how does this relate back to the writing experiment? Currently, I am still working on the first draft, and I have several incidental characters. One of them is a diplomat. Instead of making him smoother than an oil slick, I am making him a gentle, almost shy man, with a warm smile. And all the scheming is being done by fathers who want the ‘best’ for their children.

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Filed under Characterization, Stereotypes, writing

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