Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Streotypical Stereotypes??

Prepare for a long, rather rambly, slightly rant-y post. You've been warned.

Several days ago, my husband stumbled across another author's great blog entry on bucking gender (both genders) stereotypes. My husband was delighted to find, in his words, a blogger so clearly "intelligent and academic!" So he dived in and joined the conversation.

Only to have it suggested that his input was unwelcome because he is male.

I kid you not.

So after a few pert words, he took his shovel and pail and left them to their tea-party.

But since I actually like boys here at my playground (Hi James! Hi David! Hi Graham!) I really did want to look at some of these issues in a nice, neutral marketplace of ideas.

We'll start with a story that you may have seen if you follow me on twitter. Last week I was at the airport waiting at the curb for my mom to pick me up. Two men (looked like a father and grown son) were also waiting. A pretty blonde woman starts to drive by, sees him, and pulls in at a sharp angle. The man (husband, I assume) gestures for her to pull up into the enormous empty space in front of her and says, "Pull forward!" The woman gets this utterly, completely vapid look on her face, I see her "get it," she giggles rather insipidly, and pulls forward. . . . about twenty feet. The husband's shoulders slump a little as he picks up his bags and mutters, "Not that far," and tromps after her. The father follows and in response to the little giggles that went through the crowd says, "She's pregnant." Everyone surrounding me goes, "Ahhhh."

What?? How is that justification?? Talk about perpetuating a stereotype that is completely false! She's not being a moron because she's pregnant, she's just a "dumb blonde," pregnant or not.

Don't get mad at me yet. I know I vilified one stereotype and used the other. I'll come back to this.

One of the issues that my hubby brought up that was instantly misunderstood and attacked, was the question, is it always wrong to write stereotypical characters? He may as well have asked, is it always wrong to ritually sacrifice children? But if I were writing the above scene into a story, would it be my responsibility to change the woman's hair color to brown so that I was not perpetuating the "dumb blonde" stereotype? But she was blonde! Is it politically incorrect for me to change that?

The word "stereotype" is pretty much always used in the pejorative sense. Why is that? Well, no one wants to be defined by a stereotype, and no one wants to read a book that is drowning in clichés. But there is very little you can do that someone else can't use to stereotype you--especially in high school, in my opinion. How often are the valedictorian and the captain of the football team the same person? How many members of the chess team are finalists in the Junior Miss pageant? How often is the fastest runner on the cross-country team one of the chain-smoking bad boys?

Never say never! But let's say... rarely. Sometimes (except maybe the chain-smoking bad boy!;)), but not often. Call it cliques, call it social borders, but if you see a high schooler walking down the hallway, and guess what their extra-curricular activities are based solely on their appearance, you will often be right.

So why do we abhor them so much, in life and in writing? Don't we write about real life? Certainly, if we don't like a stereotype that is being applied to us, it's good to remember that it is possible to cross those boundaries--even to cut them down. And teenagers especially will often do things with no more reason than to "be different," because that is part of understanding who we are! But I think a lot of people have become so fixated on bucking gender stereotypes that main characters who "buck stereotypes" have become their own cliché.

Like if I hold up a book and say, "This is a kick-a$$ chick book," you instantly know what I am talking about. And so the idea that we can "never" write stereotypes, seems like one of a million other "never" rules. It can't always be true--it must be a stereotype!

I think maybe what people really mean when they say don't write stereotypes, is to make strong, unique characters. See, that is a phrase I can live with. Because sometimes the interesting story IS a character who resides within a stereotype. I recently read the ARC of a book called A Match Made in High School by Kristin Walker, out next year. It is hilarious! I loved it! However, as time passes, the character who really sticks with me is a side character. She is every cheerleading stereotype you could imagine. She is popular, blonde, skinny, mean, slutty. She is a cookie cutter. I should not like her! The author sets you up not to like her. But as the book went on, she became redeemed in my eyes.

**MINOR SIDEPLOT SPOILER ALERT** Not because you see her soft side, or because she changes. In fact, the only real vulnerability you see is from her boyfriend's point of view, which is--at least somewhat--biased. But the character you really get to see is the boyfriend. Despite being quite cruel at the beginning, you come to realize that he really is just a show-off with a good heart, and he loves this cheerleader. I thought the author was setting things up for the well-rounded boyfriend to leave the two-dimensional cheerleader for the main character. But he doesn't, he keeps loving her, and because he does, the reader does too. If this cheerleader had not been such a stereotype, it would not have been nearly so compelling of a story line.**END SPOILER**

I sometimes get really frustrated with all the "rules" and "responsibilities" and "politics" that everyone likes to perpetuate around the web in the writing community. We are "supposed" to make our female characters strong and confident! But I mention that Laurel knows she's pretty and some readers assume that means she is "stuck up." We are supposed to present diversity, but despite Tamani being dark-haired and dark-skinned (there is no "race" as such among faeries, just appearances), some readers see blonde Laurel and say I am equating goodness with light hair and skin. (Aren't there good blondes in this world too?) And on the other side of the spectrum, some people think that it is unbelievable that Laurel comes in and attracts the "hottest guy in the school," and I am like, uh . . . really? You think the science geek is the hottest guy in the school? No one is ever going to be one hundred percent happy with your text--but what's more, people will stereotype your characters in ways you never intended.

So what do we, as writers, do? Honestly, I think the way to go about this is to go old school. Just write the story that wants to be told. If your main character is ethnic/gay/female/handicapped/whatever, great, but if that's the most interesting thing about their story, you may be writing yourself into a cliché! And definitely don't write in token ethnic/gay/female/handicapped/whatever characters--people will see through that. Rather, focus on writing unique characters in an interesting story, and remember that doing the "stereotypical" thing can be just as "unexpected" as being a rebel!

I'm going to wrap up (yes, really, I'm ending it now) with a quote from Neal Stephenson that I think applies to SO many aspects of life (and was rebuffed in the blog entry because, yes, Neal Stephenson is a boy so his input doesn't count). At the end of a book called Diamond Age a young woman is asked by a mentor-figure whether she will “conform or rebel,” and she answers, “Neither . . . . Both ways are simple-minded--they are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity.”

So when faced with this litany of rules that I am expected to follow, I ask myself, will I follow them, or refuse? And, like the girl in Diamond Age, I reply, neither. I will follow when I see fit, and break away when I feel necessary. In that, I feel I am more free to tell the best story.

Hehe, you made it to the end, eh? I'm impressed!



Juju at Tales of said...

I totally feel you on this statement, :"We are "supposed" to make our female characters strong and confident! But I mention that Laurel knows she's pretty and some readers assume that means she is "stuck up."
Amen sister!
Shoot what's wrong with showing weakness or being confident?

BookChic said...

Loved reading this entry! Very well-written and compelling argument. Go you! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this matter.

I was shocked to see that your husband's opinion doesn't matter because he's male. That makes no sense. Every person's opinion matters, no matter what the topic, but especially on one about bucking both gender stereotypes. *sigh* That just makes me sad for the people who said that to your husband.

Heather said...

You go girl! I absolutely agree. Write the story as it needs to be written!

Nerd Goddess said...

I had a creative writing teacher say you must know the rules before you can break them, and I think this is one of those points.

You definitely don't want your main character to be cliche or stereotypical, because that won't hold your reader's interest. However, I do think that stereotypes can be, and are of course used to great advantage for minor characters in the story.

This also goes with cliche phrases. You don't want to be responsible for a cliche phrase from the narrator or from the writer. But if you put one in the character's mouth, it defines their character.

Writing is funny because there really are no set rules about it. Every one of them can be broken and can be broken well. However, as a writer, it is your responsibility to figure out when this needs to happen in your writing, and if it is beneficial to the story that you are telling.

Anyways, I like your blog, but I haven't read Wings yet! I'll stick around and keep reading your posts until I have the time to read your book. :)

Jeanette said...

Love this! Now if you could just write a post about why I should stop reading about writing and GET BACK TO WRITING that would be great because I am in a writing funk indeed.

Natalie Whipple said...

I already liked you, but now I LOVE you. That was a fabulous post—exactly what I wanted to say but better.

No matter what you do, people will stereotype. Human nature, even if it sucks. Write real characters, plain and simple.

Valerie Ipson said...

It is is mind-boggling and seems to me no book would get written if we tried to please everyone and follow "rules." The answer is just write a good book and the majority of people will just read and enjoy.

Rob said...

I say write however you so wish.

In order to be a writer, I think it's necessary to put yourself in others shoes. To put yourself in stranger shoes. I've written characters who came from different upbringings, had different tastes, different religions, different scars, different hidden pasts. It's all part of the story so why try to censor yourself. Why try to hide your journey of the character and how different they are from you. Keep writing. Like B-King, "Have it your way."

Jessie Oliveros said...

All excellent points. I completely agree that the cliche is beginning to be breaking the stereotypes, which is ironic. But then there is balance that must be made. I'm sorry your husband was ousted for being a boy. No fair.

Kathleen MacIver said...

I'm thinking that the reason so many people rant on stereotypes is because writers sometimes fall back on the stereotypical characteristics so exclusively that the character has no individuality. They are virtually identical to dozens like him/her.

So I think the trick is...don't worry if your character might fall under a stereotype or not. Instead, focus on who that character really is. So she's blond and a cheerleader and pretty and vivacious. Okay. Now... does she like ferrets? Is she afraid of the dark? Has she ever been to Disney? Which type of chips does she like? Has she had braces? What was her favorite childhood book? These are the kinds of things that will make her different from every other pretty blond cheerleader.

jjdebenedictis said...

I think it is always wrong to write someone as a stereotype because no real human being is that simple.

Most people can fit into a category or two, but if you scratch the surface, they are always so much more than just their stereotype. The dumb blond may be extremely kind and sensitive. The dreamy high school jock may be a date rapist.

You can have characters who fit a well-known type, but you should always strive to make them deeper than just that. Stereotypes are lazy writing.

sari said...

I think it's unfortunate that the internet, while providing contact with everything you could possibly want or imagine, allows for so much close-mindedness.

You see it everywhere. People are seemingly thrilled to just jump in and trash people they don't even know left and right without allowing for any kind of a separate opinion from their own.

Nichole Giles said...

Thank you and amen!


Demon Hunter said...

I agree. And in my own writing, I like to research for my story. And I am thankful that I know a wide array of people so that I don't throw in a stereotypical character that is offensive--because I have read many. It would be great if everyone knew when to conform and or rebel.

Candice Kennington said...

I just wrote a blog dealing with cliche characters (thought it was a much shorter, less insightful post). But this has been on my mind a lot lately because I do have a side character who some might say is stereotypical. But I like him that way, so he stays. I think your post just validated what I was already feeling.

Laci said...

You so hit the nail on the head of what we just talked about at writters group! Go You! (so, I hope you think I'm a good, nice person because I'm blonde...not naturally but I'm still your friend *wink*)

Jared and Christin said...

I would just like to point out that stereotypes are not necessarily bad things. We all use them to some extent everyday to identify, categorize, and simplify our daily interactions. In writing, it may just be easier to describe a neighbor as a "crazy old cat lady" instead of taking up valuable time and space writing out all her quirks when the stereotype shortcut will be just as (or even more) effective.

HOWEVER, it's when you get stuck in your stereotypes that your writing becomes stagnant, cardboard, and yes, lazy. Stereotypes are useful, but ultimately lines in the sand when you start to assume that no character/person can rise above them. Being Male/Female, Black/White, Religious/Not does not necessarily mean that one can not understand or at least attempt to understand the position of the other, even if they will never experience it for themselves.

Tara said...

The bottom line is that we as writers cannot control what others think about our stories. That's not an excuse to write stereotypical characters or plots, but it does take the pressure off. Even if we do take a stand or a position as an author, people will still agree or disagree.

sami♥ said...

Hello Mrs. Pike!

I am a 14 year-old girl from the outside suburbs of Chicago. The other day i finished reading your breath-taking book Wings, and thought, "Man-O-Man, this woman must be some sort of writing goddess!" Then i read your blog. You seem like such a simple and refreshingly ordinary person, who has a spectacular talent for writing, and extraordinary perspective! I have honestly never read such an entrancing book as this one! I've had ADHD my whole life, and it has always been an irritating struggle to be able to sit down and simply read a good book for at least 45 minutes to an hour. (Unless of course it's a school assignment!) The twists and turns, and crazy adventures Laurel, David, and even Tamani were so cutting-edge and impassioned, i could never seem to draw my focus from the pages, as they flipped constantly before my eyes! I did read your blog, and the other comments and enjoyed a giggle now and again reading what other readers commented. Because of the fact that I am most likely a bit younger than most of the other "commenters", I wasn't quite able to relate to a lot of the situations, besides the ones relating to high school. You were dead on. High School is pretty crummy as was middle school! It's all about who was the gossip on which clique! Although most cliques don't call it that...we call them "groups of friends" :)

I apologize for the length of my comment and impertinence of it as well. (What do you expect from a freshman who is home sick from school, with nothing else to do!)

Thank you so much for allowing me to thank you for the wonderful book, Wings!

If you ever decide to create a movie out of the book, I am definitely open for the character of Laurel! (haha) That would be a dream come true!!! :)

Write back!

...your #1 fan


Patti said...

Great rant. Cliched characters will always exist, what will change is the situations you put them in.

Anonymous said...

I had a brother and sister who both surfed. She was awarded valedictorian and he took the GED to get out of school. Stereotypes are there for a reason as are breaking molds. Because people are different. :)

I applaud your husband for taking a stand! Last time I got reamed on a blog it resulted in me writing my own book (at my husband's insistence) because in the blog I had put forth certain theories of a fourth book of a certain saga involving vampires. And was shot down. Hard.

But um....turned out I was right on every theory. :)

Bert Sahlberg said...

Trying again

Aprilynne. I would like to write a story about your for the LCSC Journey (alumni magazine). Is there a way to contact you?

Bert Sahlberg
Director of College Communications
LCSC 208-792-2200

Jessica said...

I just want to say I agree and I am really glad you wrote this.

I love when you do entries like this because it makes me glad to know that you are a down-to-earth person as well as a great writer :)

Brien T. said...

Great meeting you tonight. Susan's bringing home your books so I can get started reading.

(Neal Sephenson is one of my favorite authors! I reread his work regularly!)


CKHB said...

I love the conform or rebel quote! Great post, thank you!

The Novelist said...

Wow! Wow! Wow!!!!

I am very impressed by this post made by a "smart brunette!" (Hee hee! stereotype intended!)

This was awsome!

tomdg said...

Great post :)

I've just been reading E.M. Forster's comments on "flat characters" which kind of echo what you're saying. Although of course since he and I are both guys neither of our opinions matter :) Go Kenny.

Of course guys have dismissed the opinions of women for years, but dragging groups of women authors down to our level isn't progress :(

Your final comment reminds me of the fact that being truly free / a rebel / nonconformist means being able to go along with the crowd when you choose to (as opposed to always having to be different). Something I've struggled with a bit :)

Having a book entirely populated with characters who refuse to be stereotypes would be a little false ... perhaps as much so as having them all as stereotypes. Isn't the stereotype who refuses to confirm a stereotype too?

That said, there are a handful of stereotypes that are so pervasive and damaging that I could never write a character like that. I daren't give examples but most of them would be to do with race. There aren't any characters like that in Wings, though :)

kristin-walker said...

You are divine.

Georgia said...

I love this so much!

Somehow your blog has not been showing up in my reader... so I am just now discovering all the entries I have missed...

I have to admit, I am more than a little curious what the blog was that wouldn't let your hubby play. That is just silly!


Graham Chops said...

Yay for shout-outs!!! hahaha Hi Aprilynne!

Really good post here. You can write a great story with any kind of character you like, but if the focus of the story is that character's stereotype's, congratulations, you just wrote a crappy book.

Now if you write a book with completely stereotypical characters but the plot has an entirely distinct purpose, well congratulations, your name is Dan Brown :-)

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