Friday, July 14, 2006

The quick and easy guide to not writing stereotypes

I have a list of topics I want to write about, but right now I'd like to touch on a subject I brought up briefly in my old column: stereotypes.

It's really, really easy to write stereotypes. Afterall, people tend to conform to them (and this is one reason why feminists want better female characters). Kids looking to conform often model their behavior after what they see, and stereotypes are usually exactly that because they're common. Or kids looking to not conform often end up looking and acting similarily. Theater has a long tradition of stock characters, because they are so easily identifiable and often you don't want to spend too much time defining a character when you have other things to get to, especially comedies. If we didn't have stereotypes, we wouldn't have humor where they're turned on their head. Stereotypes aren't all bad or the mark of evil, but sometimes they can be really boring, and well, common.

But this is my one step guide to how to not write a stereotype:

1. Have more than one character like the one commonly stereotyped.

What brought this to mind was Archie Week: Minority Characters on Poptown!. I've noticed this before when reading Archies. (My husband's family is really big on them and they are in nearly every bathroom, despite them being, well, French. What happened to the Schtroumpfs?) There is often just one of whatever group you pick. This does seem a little odd in a comic that is based on foils; Betty and Veronica, Archie and Reggie. But the extras in Archie comics are almost always stereotypes, because Archie is so often about trends and easily classifying people. There's a hippie. There's a stingy rich man. There's the smart kid. These are stock characters doomed to repeat their experiences over and over again and never learn. But it's still irritating. One black guy comes off as representing all of black maledom, while white guys are allowed to be Archies, Jugheads, Reggies, Moose(es?), Diltons. It's one thing to have stock characters (the regular guy, the goof, the brain), and another to treat an ethnicity (or gender) like a stock character.

I see this pop up in a lot of fiction as well. Especially with the "one woman". Women often are alone amongst the boys and it's very hard to not see blatant stereotypes in her simply because she is the sole representative of her sex. It does sort of peeve me, no matter how well written she is, because I look around and half the people I see are women.

Take for example Zap! (in space!). It started out using a lot of stereotypes. There's the dumb, fortunate hero with a super power who gets thrown into a position of command despite being a goof. There's the surly, protective big guy. The robot who mouths off. And the woman in charge who has a heartbreak in her past that distracts her and who has to step down from control because of the goof showing up, despite being more capable, and who gets rescued by said goof, again despite being more capable. Despite hating him initially, she starts falling for the goof. And she's the only gal around.
I've seen these elements before, but luckily the story is fun enough to keep rolling despite the set up. The creators start getting on their feet, add on more layers to the story, and most importantly, add more female characters. Suddenly our first woman, Reona, becomes her own character and not just a collection of stereotypes. Zap! is good stuff.

There are countless other webcomics that have started out with one single female and when the writer really started to figure things out, added multiple others. Here's one everyone knows - PVP. Jade bucks some stereotypes, but she seems a heck of a lot more real with female friends and incidental other women. It makes it hard to levy the charge that she's a geek ideal woman or something when she seems real. (Now, if she'd only learn to stop dressing like Sharon Stone at the Oscars in 1995!)

Not to say you can't skirt stereotypes with just one character, but I did emphasize this was the easy method. Some of my favorite heroines are just the one woman amongst men, but it's often because the entire cast feels real and you can see how this would just happen to be this way. Like, uh, Voltron. Or drawing from my own life, I remember sitting in a Waffle House with my 3 closest friends in high school and us suddenly realizing we were just like Seinfeld. Crazy guy, wise cracking overly critical guy, over-anxious self-depreciating guy, and cynical me. Except I can dance. OK, we weren't just like Seinfeld, but you had to be there, obviously. (And I'm pretty sure that other people have had the same experience, hanging out with their friends and realizing they are direct parallels to the good guys in Star Wars, or the Golden Girls, or something. There's a name for the kind of logic where you only pay attention to what fits and ignore other things, but I can't remember it off the top of my head.)

To sum up, a lot of writers get off to a shakey start before they find their legs and can really develope their characters and so end up with accidental stereotypes. Stereotypes are easy. But they're a bit like writing fanfiction in that you're writing someone else's characters and not even doing what fanfiction does well by fleshing them out. This is your story. You don't want characters interchangable with someone else's. That's boring.

The hard way to make sure you don't write people as just stereotypes is to take that early stuff as a draft and start in earnest where it gets better. Webcomics, however, are usually works in progress and we all hate our early stuff. So the easy way to avoid stereotypes is to include more than one.

And then don't kill them all off.

8 comments:

megs said...

To add to this, here's something for people who want to DRAW different kinds of people:

Cedarseed's Tutorials

Particularily the Artist's Guide to Human Types.

Andy said...

This was some sort of round about way to tell me I suck and stereotype all your ETR characters, wasn't it?

WASN"T IT!?

megs said...

Only the last line was for you, buddy! ;D

Like I need to tell you how to write different people.

Andy said...

AWWWW! But I wanted to kill everyone off except Ed and Sammy so they'd have to repopulate the earth but...OMG... they're SIBLINGS!

It's like the PEREFCT Drama, don't you think?

John Troutman said...

That anecdote reminds me of the time I was hanging out with some of my friends at a restaurant and suddenly realized that I was the Xander (a reference I don't think you get because you never watched Buffy). But still.

Andy said...

The goofy guy that only ever attracts demons or turns girls gay?

megs said...

Trout is the goofy guy who always gets killed! Oh! Without stereotypes, we wouldn't have Grave Robbers From Outer Space!

Anonymous said...

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