It can be really hard to avoid stereotypes in characterization when you’re setting up your novel. A stereotype is “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.”
We all use stereotypes in everyday life, whether at the grocery store or filling up at the gas station or at a scientific symposium. For better or worse, they help us categorize the world around us.
But they can also get us into trouble when we forget to allow the people around us to be larger and more complex than we expect them to be. Stereotypes are so embedded in our conscious and subconscious that they end up on the pages of our novels before we really have a chance to process why we have chosen them.
Reasons to avoid stereotypes
These are a few reasons why you should avoid stereotypes in your characterizations.
- They are unrealistic. People are wide and varied in their looks, interests, and self-expression. Fiction does not always have to reflect reality, of course, but if anything it should push the boundaries and create more options instead of less.
- They are limiting. Once you decide to allow a character to conform to a stereotype, there’s not much left for them to do. You’re stuck having them act according to that stereotype instead of allowing yourself room to write the story outside those limits.
- Stereotypes mean flat characters. There’s nothing to a stereotyped character. No motive, no real depth or dimension to him.
- And once they stop having depth, your characters become uninteresting. Why would you want your characters to be predictable and boring?
If you want your novel to be memorable, you’re going to have to take some time to examine your characters and root out as many stereotypes as you can. Here are four ways to avoid using stereotypes in your writing to create rounder, more realistic characters.
4 ways to avoid stereotypes
- Spend some time people watching, and especially people that are different than you. I know this sounds a little stalker-like, but if you take the time to observe (or better yet, get to know) people who are remarkably different from you, you’ll begin to see how varied their actions, interests, body types, and style preferences are. Inform your writing by learning as much as you can about the people you are trying to portray and writing them as realistically as possible.
- Challenge convention. If you can’t find people similar to the characters you are writing, that’s ok. Take a few minutes to ask yourself why you portray each character the way you do, what purpose they serve in the story, and whether your story would be better served if that character did something completely contrary to what people expect. Why constrict your writing and your characters’ potential by forcing them to conform to a specific trope?
- Create rounder characters. The definition of a stereotype speaks for itself. It’s oversimplified–a caricature. You owe it to your characters to make them as deep and complex as possible. Again, this comes back to why you portray a character a certain way. Ask yourself if there’s a deeper, more meaningful way to describe that character or their actions.
- Make your characters unforgettable. How do you do that? By having them do unexpected things. If a character is flat and unimaginative, if he/she/it conforms to the expectations of your readers in style, language, and actions, then he/she/it will probably not leave much of an impression. Readers remember characters that shake up their world and challenge their preconceived notions of reality.
Look beyond the stereotype
Discovering stereotypes and conscientiously eliminating them from your writing is hard! It requires that you do some deep self-reflection as well as some heavy developmental editing. But your writing will benefit so greatly from the exercise. And your readers will deeply appreciate the effort.
One main problem that beginning writers have when drafting their novels is making sure that they get their meaning across to their readers without beating them over the head with it.
It might seem like you can’t leave any room for ambiguity in that one scene– you know the one–because it’s important that your reader knows what’s going on so that they understand what happens later. But never fear! Readers are really good at picking up subtext and connecting the dots.
In fact, you’re more likely to lose your readers’ interest by spelling things out in too much detail because you’ll leave no room for their imagination. Here are three ways to trust your readers more and keep your writing from seeming coarse and redundant.
Three ways to trust your readers more
- Use fewer “creative” dialogue tags – It might seem like you’ve used the word “said” a thousand times in your manuscript. And you probably have. But do you know how many times your reader has noticed it? Zero. If you change it up, however, she’s guaranteed to start noticing and possibly getting irritated at having the dialogue explained to her, and that’s going to draw her out of the story. Unless it’s really important to know that a line is whispered or shouted and the context of the dialogue is not going to help the reader get there, you can stick with said and not worry about boring anyone in the slightest.
- Try not to spell everything out – Occasionally you might need to clarify what your characters mean, but more often than not you’re wasting words by stating the obvious. And your reader is going to notice. This includes “on-the-nose” dialogue. In real life, people rarely say what they actually mean. Your characters should be no different. Choose your details with care and have your characters keep some of what they mean to themselves.
- Resist the urge to reiterate – Repetition has its place in a novel, but there are limits to where you can use it without causing your reader to feel talked down to. You don’t need to remind the reader of major plot points every few pages, or tell her more than once that King Triton is Ariel’s father. She’s going to remember.
The writer-reader relationship takes cultivation, certainly, but remember you don’t have to do all the work. Stop stating the obvious and allow the subtext of your novel to shine through. Your reader will thank you for the opportunity to let her imagination run wild right along with yours.
There are some places where pop-culture references really rock (take last Friday’s blog post, for example). When you’re writing a blog post or talking with your friends and looking for a good example to illustrate a point about storytelling, look no further than Hulu or Netflix or (less and less) cable TV. Pop culture references can be relate-able and can relevantly illustrate your point to your target audience.
When it comes to your novel, though, there are three good reasons to avoid pop-culture references.
- It dates you–quickly. (Also a problem for people using technology references in novels)
As you’re probably well aware, in this age of the Internet, trends are like meteors flashing brightly on their way through the earth’s atmosphere. They last just a moment. If you want your novel to endure, to really feel timeless, don’t have your characters sitting down to season four of The Sopranos (or worse, Magnum PI!). Unless your story is clearly supposed to be rooted in that time period, you’re limiting yourself.
- Not everyone will get it.
The last thing you want to do is alienate your readers. If you spend time making references (no matter how witty) to a show or meme or trend that your readers haven’t seen or heard of (or that they’ve already forgotten about!), you’re going to lose those readers, confuse them, or cause them to come out of the story in order to figure out what you’re talking about. That’s the last thing you want! Do whatever you can to keep your readers connected to the characters, invested in the story, and turning the pages.
- It’s unoriginal.
Seriously. It’s your world, even if you’ve set the story on modern-day Earth. Take a few minutes to imagine your own version of the soda, tennis shoes, or TV show that your characters are referring to! Own your world and show off that brilliant imaginative mind. (Bonus; No one else will have the same reference in their novel, so yours will stand out!)
So next time you’re tempted to slip in a witty line about Downton Abbey or New Coke, stop! And use your imagination to create references that are an organic part of your own world, a world your readers will love and won’t want to leave.