Sunday, October 5, 2008

What Is a Stereotype Character?

Recently someone posted on a list serv that he “wouldn't support an author who characterized all Irish people as ignorant and lazy or one who characterized all Jewish people as devious, greedy manipulators or one who painted all Sicilians as Mafiosi.” That sounds reasonable on the surface, but it leaves me wondering: How does an author characterize ALL Irish people as ignorant and lazy? The presence of a single Irish character who happens to be lazy wouldn’t give readers the idea that you were prejudiced against the Irish, would it? How many lazy Irish characters would you have to include in your novel for readers to come away with the idea that you had characterized ALL Irish people that way?

Or, for example, if you wrote a novel in which most of the characters were Sicilian and Mafioso (The Godfather), would readers assume that the author thought ALL Sicilians were mob-connected? Does anyone think Mario Puzo is a racist?

Clearly, as novelists, we have to be careful about not playing into stereotypes. But stereotypes exist for a reason and are based on widely held perceptions. If you avoid every character detail that could be considered a stereotype, you’ll end up with rather dull characters who don’t resemble real people. To avoid offense, you could simply not label characters with any ethnic background. Still, you have to give everyone a name. Not having any ethnically associated names (O’Callahan, Schakowski, Botticelli) in your novel may go too far in the other direction and make you look like a bigoted WASP.

Then there’s the popular TV show Rescue Me. The main character, Tommy Gavin, is Irish, alcoholic, and often out of control—and so is his whole family! The show plays directly into a stereotype. Are people offended by that? I’m certainly not. And I’m part Irish and come from a family of alcoholics.

Then there's the issue of the antagonist. If the serial killer in your story has a German-sounding name, will Germans be offended because you've characterized them as serial killers? I would hope not. Yet a few people have reacted that way to the killer in my story (who happens to be religious), calling her a stereotype and offensive to religious people. (For the record, she represents no one but herself.)

As readers, what sort of character stereotypes offend you? As writers, how do you portray real people with real ethnic backgrounds and flaws without offending readers or being labeled a bigot?


jamiegrove said...

You're right that some people will see any ethnic reference as a stereotype, but I think you have to let the story be the story. I just try to write what I see and leave it at that.

As an aside, being an Irish alcoholic who is perennially lazy I take offense at being labeled ignorant. I'm not ignorant. I just talk too fast. :)

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I never even think about stereotypes when reading novels. If an NYPD detective is from an Irish-Catholic family and hangs out at a bar that caters to cops, that's pretty much they way it is is real life . There are lots of Irish-Catholic cops and firemen in NYC. Now, I come form North Jersey, so I happen to know a lot of Italians. Are they all like Tony Soprano? Of course not! but some of the stereotypes are true. Italians tend to talk a lot with their hands, Italian mothers are always trying to feed you, etc. Like you said, these stereotypes are there for a reason. Because most of the times they are pretty accurate. Of course, not all Italians are associated with the Mob and not Irish are alcoholics, but a lot fit that bill-I know from from my own family. My Irish grandfather was an alcoholic, I'm part Italian and I love to cook. My mother, however, (whom I get the Italian from, does not)So, as far as being offended when I see these stereotypes in books, nobody should take any offense. After all, it's fiction and I think it makes the characters more life-like. If they were all Jane/john Doe from anytown, USA, most books would be boring.

©Hotbutton Press said...

I think we're all guilty of a certain level of stereotypical behavior, and also tend to judge others from a developed prejudicial benchmark. I also believe, the less informed a person is, the more likely they'll buy into this kind of cult mentality. Isn't that what it really is? Wanting to belong to a group, and so we modify our behavior to fit in and subsequently become a stereotype. It's seems to be wrapped up with survival instinct, and we're all likely to fall into those patterns without realizing it.

Dani (who is definitely not a stereotypical "starving artist".)

Anonymous said...

I think that more than being simply an offensive generality stereotypes place your characters in the past when such perceptions were common parlance.

My writing has retro stylings but I'd be loathe to make an ethnic generality because it would make me, the narrator sound like a relic rather than enlivening my character.

Contemporary stereotypes: all Evangelicals and by extension all Christians, and anyone who believes in religion is a pedophile/closeted homosexual

And of course, all arabs are terrorists.

The world has become so multicultural that it's to just call someone an "idiot." (idiots get offended)

You may have heard the Association for the Blind has protested the movie BLINDNESS and not long ago people with Down Syndrome boycotted the movie Tropic Thunder because it featured a mentally disabled character.

hearwritenow said...

I agree, to an extent, that you have to write the character as true as possible to the way he presents himself to you. If you try to change him to avoid stereotypes, you run the risk of something feeling false to the reader.

One characterisation, off the top of my head, that did deeply offend me was when the protagonist of the book raped a teenage girl and considered it within his rights to do so. Not even when the girl's mother tried to kill him, did he show the slightest remorse, or even any understanding of his crime. Not surprisingly, I refuse to read any more works by that author.

L.J. Sellers said...

I believe Tropic Thunder was boycotted because its characters repeatedly used the word "retard," not simply because it featured a mentally handicapped person. Positive portrayals of handicapped individuals are supported by related associations.

As for the terrorist, my question applies here to: If your story contains a terrorist, who is also Muslim, are you creating a stereotype or a true-to-life antagonist? If you also include in your story Muslims who are good guys, then you have been clear, as an author, that you don't see ALL Muslims as terrorists.

Helen Ginger said...

I do think you have to be aware of how you portray characters in your book. As an editor, I tend to notice it in books I'm working on. If some characters in a book have a "mainstream" voice and others have a definite accent, be it southern, cajun, italian, etc., I look to see if only the uneducated or low income characters have the accent. If it seems that the character who speak a certain way are being stereotyped, then I point it out to the author.

zhadi said...

What an excellent post, LJ. For me, it all depends on how skillfully an author handles his/her characters and whether or not they ring true or just seem like they were grabbed from a nearbye box labeled ' drunk irish cop' or 'jive talkin' black man.' Etc.