On Stereotypes

This is a quote from a longer column I wrote on the basic mechanics of storytelling.

An idea often noised about by Leftists, but one which no sober man should take seriously, is the idea that stereotypes, in of themselves, are bad. Far from being bad stereotypes are a necessary in inescapable tool in the writer’s toolkit, and the following explains why:

This, by the way, is why writers use stereotypes. Far from being the evil thing all the rest of the world regards them as being, writers cannot write without stereotypes of people, places and things, and this is because our entire art consists of creating the illusion of a complete picture or a complete world out of a splinter or fragment of description, with the reader’s imagination filling in the majority of the details. The writer uses the stereotypes in the reader’s head. One cannot do this without knowing what pictures the reader is likely to have in his imagination beforehand.

What the reader wants is not to be asked by the writer to use the stereotype in his head in a tired, trite, shopworn, or expected way, because then the reader notices, and is rightly put off, by the trick being pulled on him.

The defining characteristic of stereotypes is that they are unadmitted, unthinking, unconscious and unselfconscious, and using a stereotype in an expected way brings to the reader’s attention that he has these stereotypical sets of assumptions floating around in the back of his mind — and many a reader (especially readers who think of themselves as thoughtful) is a little miffed to discover that these unthinking assumptions are there, or are being played upon.

A reader whose stereotype assumptions differ from your own is even more aware. I recall reading a short story where, for example, nothing was described of the character aside from that he was a CIA agent. The writer expected me to fill in the details, so I (who come from a military background) filled in the details of a stalwart and patriotic member of the intelligence community. The writer (who must have come from a different background) told the story as if the character’s sinister and malign nature had been established — because, to him, the stereotype of the CIA agents is sinister and malign. And for me the spell was broken.

One way to avoid that error is to make sure that you use at least two stereotypes, preferably two stereotypes that contradict each other when describing any one character. In Tolkien, for example, Bilbo Baggins of Bag End is both a dragon-hunting adventurer friendly to elves and wizards and also an overweight avuncular old bachelor who complains about guests hanging on the doorbell all day. Kal-El of Krypton is both a heroic Herculean strongman and also a mild-mannered reporter. Fu Manchu of the Si Fan both a criminal conspirator and also a dignified Mandarin too proud to break his word and a scientific genius. Note that each of these qualities could be described (or, better yet, adumbrated) in a sentence or two, but that the character also possesses an opposite quality.

While Bilbo, Superman, and Fu Manchu at one time or another, have been denounced as being stereotypes, note their enduring popularity; and compare them to the relatively flat and uninteresting versions of their less famous imitators, Curzad Ohmsford of Shady Vale, Marvelman, and the Mysterious Wu Fang. If you said “Who?” at these names, my point is made.

What makes Bilbo different from every other knight errant is that he is a short little stay-at-home squire. What makes Superman different from other vigilante supermen is that he is a hick farmboy trying to make good in the Big City. What makes Fu Manchu different from other crime lords is his code of impeccable honor. The first two are heroes you can feel sorry for; and the last is a villain you can admire.

.You can read the rest of the essay JOHN C WRIGHT’S PATENTED ONE SESSION LESSION IN THE MECHANICS OF FICTION either in my nonfiction book of essays, TRANSHUMAN AND SUBHUMAN, or read it here: http://www.scifiwright.com/2012/03/john-c-wrights-patented-one-session-lesson-in-the-mechanics-of-fiction-2/

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