Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Stereotypes are Not Character Creation

I participate in a lot of writing groups - support groups, networking groups, etc. It's part of the life of an author. Many of these groups talk about the writing process, which is always an interesting insight into how others approach writing.

One thing that I've noticed recently is a string of questions about characterizations. These questions are many and varied, but generally come down to this: "I'm writing a character that is gendered/racial/LBGT. What do you think about the character being XYZ stereotype?" Except they don't admit that what they are asking about is a stereotype.

Too vague? Well, some of them have been about how "hard" it is for men to write women and for women to write men. Why? Because men writers have to be careful not to masculinize women, and women writers have to be careful not to feminize men.

I ask for clarification, cuz I'm just begging the querier (shut up, spellcheck, it IS a word - the google says so) to take back the -ism. I've gotten responses like "women aren't as aggressive as men in the way they think", or "men don't look at the directions when putting things together".

These are stereotypes, my friend. And they make for bad writing.

I'm sure some of you are thinking I'm being pretty harsh. After all, we all know those guys who try to put together IKEA furniture without the paperwork, or the woman who backs down from a kitten. Yeah, I know those people, too.


Those are individuals, with individual quirks. One of these stereotypes isn't going to break your character, but when you have a guy who never "thinks or acts feminine"... well, I don't even know what that means, first of all. Secondly... never? Never ever? Never has a single thought like "damn, that's a fine looking furniture set!"? Nada?

Characters like that are, quite frankly, one-dimensional and boring. It's a boxed-cake method of character creation, and the reader can tell. The really sad thing about it is that it is so easy to fix those characters!

The truth is, people are people... are people. To make awesome characters, think about the people you know. Think about the things they do, what you know about their emotions and thoughts. Use that.

Make a cheerleader character. Make her blonde and petite and pretty. Make her not very into school. Maybe she's a little boy-crazy. Then give her a twist - she's a super-powered chosen one who is destined to save the world from vampires and demons with her strength, speed and high-kicking ability. (Yeah, you know who I'm talking about - but there's a reason that character works.)

Using a stereotype and standing it on it's head in some way gets people interested. People do embody stereotypes to a small degree, but there's always something deeper. People are nuanced, characters should be nuanced, too.

I have two LBGT characters in Too Wyrd. The truth is, I didn't create them to BE LGBT characters... they just were. In other words, they are not **GAY CHARACTERS**. They are characters who, as their nature/personality/characterization came to my awareness, were gay.

I'm currently working on a character who is black and from New Orleans. I knew she was Southern, but it wasn't until I started thinking about her appearance and personality did I realize that she's black and Cajun - and ends up pulling Nicola out a a pretty tough situation.

These characters are not their characteristics. They are not stereotypes of these characteristics. They are just people facing issues - sometimes those issues are about discrimination, which lends even more nuance to the characters. It's a fascinating exploration of humanity to find all the ways that people can just BE people.

So don't spoil the people by making them a stereotype. If they have a stereotypical characteristic, have a reason for them having that characteristic. Make it a part of THAT CHARACTER.