Storytelling

Why Breaking Stereotypes Makes Stronger Characters

Stereotypes are deeply embedded in our culture. They permeate every aspect of our communication with one another: journalism, lyrics, movies, casual conversation… you name it. It doesn’t take long before they wiggle their way into our minds, and from there they sneak into our stories.

Stereotypes and other clichés flourish because people are lazy. They allow us to take mental shortcuts when making judgments and imagining scenarios. When I meet a new person, I can use their clothing, race, gender, age and other obvious characteristics, compare them to my internal database of stereotypes, and get a false mental picture of who they are without expending the effort to actually find out. If I’m writing a story and I need a shopkeeper, I just can pull info out of my shopkeeper stereotype file. Putting in a middle-aged, balding, white man wearing an apron is way easier than thinking about all of the different characteristics my shopkeeper could have.

That’s why when you’re coming up with ideas for your story, stereotypes will show up first to the party. They are the default in our minds. Creating a story without them isn’t about being magically stereotype free. It’s isn’t about being upright and without bias. It’s about going through your ideas after you’ve created them, hunting down the stereotypes, and shooting those suckers where the sun don’t shine.

Why You Should Defy Stereotypes

Sexism, anyone?

While dumping culturally-defined ideas in your story will give you cute kittens and brave heroes, it will also make your work embody things you’d rather not adopt from society at large. Racism, homophobia, twinkies… you get the idea. All cultures prefer some classes of people over others, and so will your story if you aren’t paying attention.

But I want to be uninteresting…

Stereotypes are by their definition clichés. You’ve probably heard people ranting about how terrible clichés are before. Some types of clichés have their use, but you shouldn’t put clichéd characters in your stories because they are boring. Don’t provide a mental shortcut to spare lazy readers from thinking. A little thinking will help your audience be more engaged. Even more importantly, people are entertained by what’s new and novel, not by things as old and familiar as rotten vegetables in the fridge. This especially goes for spec fic fans. They aren’t even content with things happening in known reality — how do you think they’ll like your recycled characters?

Exclude younger generations from enjoying your work!

Culture is a moving target; including obvious cultural stereotypes will date your work quickly. Ideas that are fresh today will be tired tomorrow; ideas that are already old don’t stand a chance. Bias that sneaks in your work may seem innocent to most of your audience now, but after another generation or two, it will stink like old cat litter.

Subverting Stereotypes

It’s possible to make character stereotypes acceptable in your work by subverting them. Putting in a blatant stereotype will cause your audience to pull from their internal file system to make assumptions about your character. Then you can surprise everyone by proving those assumptions wrong. The key is that including the stereotype has to be a conscious decision. It didn’t just sneak in.

Here are some examples:

Megara in Disney’s Hercules

Meg from HerculesHercules: Aren’t you… a damsel in distress?
Meg: I’m a damsel. I’m in distress. I can handle this. Have a nice day!

Megara fits the stereotype, but her behavior continually defies expectations. She’s supposed to be screaming, kicking her legs, and calling “Help!” — not telling the hero to “get lost.” The subversion of her trope makes her a much fresher and more interesting character.

Jayne’s hat in Firefly

Jayne's HatJayne is also a stereotype: dumb muscle. We don’t expect him to be a real person with a variety of tastes and opinions, we just assume he’ll exhibit brutish, masculine behavior at every turn. That’s why it’s so surprising and delightful when he receives this hand-made hat from his mother and lovingly wears it.

To subvert or not to subvert

Subverting stereotypes can be fun, but there’s a problem: the stereotype. What if the writers had decided to make supporting characters that were completely novel instead? They would have been more interesting yet. Plus, not only will using clichés in this way still date your story, but subversions can become old and tiresome too. We’ve seen enough contrary princesses, can we please move on to subverting something else?

Your characters can still surprise your audience without stereotypes. The show Lost set expectations by allowing the viewers to become familiar with the characters – then they used backstories to show the audience a different side to them.

Characters that broke out of the box

Buffy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

BuffyBefore Buffy, there was a dearth of characters who worried about what to wear at prom while prowling a graveyard hunting for the undead. The popularity of her character proved not only that women with powers could carry a story, but that real-world relatability could be combined with apocalyptic scenarios to create amazing results.

Sulu from Star Trek: The Original Series

Sulu

When Star Trek first came out, Asian men only appeared on screen to portray villains bent on destroying the western world. Breaking trends, Sulu was there to demonstrate the peace and unification of everyone on Earth. A helmsman and swashbuckling hero, Sulu is still popular.

Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender

tophToph is an earthbender – a magic worker who heaves huge slabs of solid rock. It’s a very masculine form of magic, and as stereotyping would have it, most earthbenders on the show are large men with big muscles. So when the creators first conceived of Toph, that’s what they wrote in. Then they changed their minds — making the character a young blind girl instead. Her need to escape from the pampered confinement of her parents’ rich estate gave the show more action and conflict. Her blindness provided an opportunity to mock characters for forgetting she couldn’t read. But most of all, the contrast emphasized how badass she is. In her opening scene, she is shown defeating the very stereotype she was originally slated to be.

Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.

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Comments

  1. Jack Marshall

    Well said. Each character, even tiny ones, could be a conscious choice based upon the story culture. We don’t need to spend time with them; their presence will simply had reality, and they deserve empathy as beings and not just cardboard cut-outs. And as you also say, stereotypical perversity is an amusing joke that will get old.
    I would also add: Beware novelty for its own sake. If purple trees aren’t relevant to the story, there’s no reason to burden the reader with them.
    Archetype vs. Stereotype would be another good discussion. Archetypes are powerful story movers that speak to something deep within us, yet they can easily be stereotyped, or confused with a stereotype.

  2. Skylark

    Huh, I never knew they were originally going to have Toph be a buff guy. So glad they went the direction they did, but I do wonder if that influenced the choice for actor!Toph in Ember Island Players (the results of which were hysterical).

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      If I recall, that was a deliberate poke at themselves by the writers.

  3. Shadowkat

    I’ve been trying to look up more ideas about tweaking stereotypes in books. I’m planning a fantasy, and I know I want to defy some expectations for race. I also think, however, some can be justified. Wood Elves would naturally evolve to adapt to the trees, and if they’re, say, all carnivors and won’t kill plants, the bow stereotype would certainly make sense. And a mage orc would be cool, but the warrior stereotype matches for a reason, so a battlemage would fit more, using what he was made to learn in his upbringing as well as what he taught himself.

    I think that’s the great thing about some of the examples you put up. The characters weren’t made crazily different, but enough to show the diversity of individuals. I like that, and I wish I could find more articles discussing the subject.

    • Chris Winkle

      Thanks. If I were try to break stereotypes about fantasy races while still retaining the feel of the race, I would probably pick one traditional aspect of the race that I want, then extrapolate that in new directions. So for instance, maybe I want my orcs to be hulking and muscular like other orc depictions, because without that they wouldn’t seem like orcs to me. However, maybe they’ve develop all those muscles not because they’re barbaric warriors, but because they’re builders. They’re always hauling large slabs of stone around to build their unassailable settlements.

      • Gwen

        I also think sometimes giving into stereotypes but subverting how that role is conceived can be very fresh.

        Let’s take the princess…
        The passive damsel princess to be saved? Tired and problematic. The plucky princess who wants to run away? also tired.

        If you must show a princess who has little control over how society sees her, why not at least give it dignity. Intricate rules of court, learning to handle strategy, economics, and politics. And acknowledging the many, many princesses who achieved a great deal and were celebrated in their own right, often in roles we think (wrongly) would have been denied to them.

        I think adding a dose of reality gives depth to an otherwise tired and uninteresting cliche, especially if the cliche is born out of a general stereotype that was rarely true.

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