By Letitia Coyne
Posted March 22, 2012
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A little while ago, I was involved in a discussion with a writer who was banging his head over a new story idea. His page was blank so I suggested a first line, something like:
“An ancient hermit, his skin as gritty as a cave floor and his hair like spider’s web, walks into a pub, digs around in his rags for something that he lays onto the bar, squints up at the barman and says, ‘….”
Not surprisingly he knew exactly how that story went. He knew stories that start in a tavern have a fighter, a thief, a mage, and a healer who have randomly come together under the employ of a strange and mysterious wizard. It’s the rules. He also knew it would be a dark and stormy night.
One sentence created an image so familiar in fantasy fiction that it suggested a thousand unspoken words. That is not good, of course, no one wants to write or read that story again; it’s too familiar, there is nothing new to learn from that scenario. ‘Avoid clichés in word and scene’ is one of the 101 rules of quality fiction. But clichés, stereotypes, and memes of all kinds come to be as familiar to readers as this one is when they are used repeatedly and specifically to tap into that pool of instant, common recognition.
There are not enough words in any book to describe every scene, every character, or every nuance. Entering a world in which we want to immerse ourselves as readers requires the ability to recognize certain details in shorthand. Stereotypes facilitate that abbreviation by providing a common understanding. Try as they might to rid their work of clichés, in truth every author relies on them to a greater or lesser degree. The better the wordsmith, the less obvious the ruse.
Human minds are designed to differentiate. We put things in mental boxes. The first conversations we have with our babies and toddlers are comparative. Big and small, short and tall, loud and quiet, hot and cold, good and bad, light and dark, black and white. Identifying things which are same and different is part of our survival arsenal and we do it automatically. At its best it broadens our appreciation of the world around us. At its worst it is the basis for xenophobia and discrimination. It is so natural for us to compare self to other that we do it subconsciously, and then usually attach a raft of associations with each point of difference. We put people, places, and situations into our mental boxes, and then we decide how we feel about them.
Gender stereotyping is frowned upon in today’s enlightened society, but the differentiation remains: male and female, it can’t be ignored. As soon as they enter a story we will want to identify them as good or bad, hero or villain, knowable or alien [in terms of personality rather than galactic ethnicity] and each time we attach one of those labels, our reaction to that character will change and grow. We react with uncertainty and reserve when we see what we consider negative points of difference, and we embrace and empathize when we attribute positive traits.
Overt racial stereotyping has also gone the way of the dodo in most respectable fiction. It is no secret, however, that race as a point of difference is deeply entrenched in all cultures; is widely understood even when discrimination is not practiced or is discouraged; and remains common when you scratch the surface of modern fiction. [In researching this article I found a brilliant illustration of this exact point at io9.com]
To a lesser degree, but just as importantly, we assess the environment in stories, too. In fact, it is the basis of choosing genre for many readers. If we want to break away from our day to day reality, it is common to seek out worlds that are different to our own in some important way. It might only be in time, a different era; or it might be a transporting difference in climate, desert or snow or deep forest; or it might be a world entirely created by the author whose work we are reading. No matter which environment we choose, we can only enter it by assessing its characteristics against our set of known points of reference. And the author must rely on commonalities in his readership. Stereotypes.
And there are typical experiences. When we read, we call these experiences plots and we know them all. Depending on whose theory you choose to follow there have only ever been seven stories written, or twenty-five, or a hundred. It doesn’t matter how many parts you slice the world of fiction into, the bottom line is plots are reused as they gain or lose popularity, and the fashion for a type of story grows or wanes.
I for one find it fascinating that it is possible to read a word or two and to know that very nearly every other reader around the world who reads those same words will react, and if it is a skilled wordsmith they will react in a similar way, to the characters moving through the story. Housewife, doctor, nerd, temptress, bad boy, hippie, clown, used car salesman – every term produces an image. More than that, the same basic characters can move through our books over and over again, and we will still look for them and enjoy following their adventures.
So I thought I might have a look at some stereotypes, types, and archetypes in fiction, and see if there is a reason we like to share their lives.
How willing are you to flesh out a character with subconscious assumptions? Do you look for a favorite character in every book you choose? A muscular hero? A savvy warrior chick? A cool professional? A violent psychopath? I know now that I do, but for many years of reading I did not see it.
How easily are you led?
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