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?
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