Characterisation – or when is a stereotype not a stereotype?

I haven’t (yet) given up on my online writers course and with a few modules under my belt, it is time to reflect upon my learning (that’s teacher speak by the way)

On a recent visit to London, I was forced to comment on the number of ‘trendy, young people’ who were wearing flat caps. Now I am guessing that this is some sort of fashion trend that hasn’t reached the North East – a iconic/ironic statement of some sort – I asked my friend, who is Lancashire born and bred but living in the big smoke, whether he had considered joining the trendy clones and I am sure that you can guess his response. A man from Lancashire does not wear a flat cap to be trendy – he does it to fit a stereotype.

This got me thinking about characterisation – my online course people say that you should avoid stereotypes at all cost. They make your characters appear one dimensional, unoriginal and generally boring – but isn’t a stereotype just a broad brush stroke of how a particular character should dress/act/speak – almost an expectation which if you ignore breaks the ‘magic’ you are trying to create?

A pirate for example has to conform to a particular set of ‘rules’ – you don’t have to tick all the boxes – she could be allergic to feathers (see I’ve instantly broken two pirate stereotypes there), but she must go ‘argghhhh’ a lot and be on a quest for treasure (buried or otherwise). If these elements are not present you are breaking the trust the reader is putting in you and jarring their expectations to the point they don’t believe your story. Even when they know its not real.

I am also forced to ask when does a stereotype actually become a statement of fact? I’ve visited London a handful of times, my stereotypical view of the tube journey to my friends flat was one of overcrowded trains, everyone ignoring everyone else as they cocoon themselves in their world of mobile phones, ipods and reading. Oh and there has to be a nutter shouting at everyone and no-one at the same time. In a strange way it was comforting to force myself (rucksack and all) onto the bursting tube, be ignored – regardless of how many times I fell over as the train lurched its was beneath the capital – and giggle uncontrollably at the bloke half a carriage away complaining about something or other to anyone who would listen – which of course no-one was. It was what I expected and although not the most pleasant experience I will ever have, it was strangely comforting.

So I guess what I am saying is that stereotypes have a place in fiction, they are what the population generally expect and ignoring them is akin to ignoring the law of gravity. So I intend to embrace stereotypes, although I will do so carefully to help me develop believable characters and believable plot lines.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Characterisation – or when is a stereotype not a stereotype?

  1. I have now read so many “expert” views about avoiding stereotypes and clichés that the articles themselves have become the clichés we are told not to use. I think reading a novel where no character displays any stereotypical behaviour would be an uncomfortable experience for most people regardless of the genre.

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