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On stereotypes

“Ours is a culture that prefers to make our identities static and confine them to categories, often diametrically opposed to one another” (Maria Popova)
Do you struggle to make your characters believable when they aren’t your own gender, or are otherwise different than you? Many of us do. It’s difficult enough to understand one’s own self well enough, let alone the other, which is why we so often resort to stereotypes. In a couple of characteristics, we can draw characters that are easily recognisable to all.

Not only are stereotypical characters easier to write, they tend to be well received by the readers too. This is especially true with the ‘heroes’ of genre literature. Readers associate themselves with characters that meet their ideals. Most often these include “the values associated with youth and with masculinity … anything else is taken to be at least less worthwhile or inferior,” as Susan Sontag has noted. Heroes, whoever they might be, often fit this ideal.

Last week, in his column for the Guardian, Damien Walter called for less immature fantasy heroes. The comment section shows clearly how well this was received, which is to say, not well at all. For many, the stereotypical superhero is a character to look up to, and they make their point clear. But, as Mr Walter notes, idolising the superheroes has led “to the arrested development of many men today,” which would make stereotypes not only limiting for authors, but harmful for readers too.

According to Mr Walter, “there is a desperate need for stories that tackle the hard truths of (white) male identity,” and he sees this as a way to writing more complex male characters. But human beings are complex in ways beyond their gender or race. We constantly change too. “Identity is something that you are constantly earning. It is a process that you must be active in,” as Josh Whedon points out.

If you set out to create your characters according to some idea of what they should be, a man or a woman, old or young, black or white, you are limiting yourself from the start. From Susan Sontag:
“A lot of our ideas about what we can do at different ages and what age means are so arbitrary — as arbitrary as sexual stereotypes. I think that the young-old polarization and the male-female polarization are perhaps the two leading stereotypes that imprison people.”
And as much as they “imprison us”, they imprison our characters.

Freeing our characters from the stereotypes isn’t easy. As we create them in our minds we picture them as men and women, old or young, and plan their courses accordingly. But it doesn’t have to go like that.

I wrote a short story recently where I deliberately tried not to give a fixed gender or race for my main character. I gave my character a name that could belong to a man or a woman both, and I didn’t describe the character at all. Pretty early on the character turned out to be a woman, though, partly because there isn’t a gender neutral pronoun in English for the first person singular. But for a long time I thought she could be black just as well as white. In the end, I decided that she would be white, mostly because that’s what I’m more familiar with.

I don’t hold my experiment a failure just because I went with the obvious and gave my character a recognisable gender and race. It was interesting to write a character that could have been anything. That she turned out to be a rather stereotypical representative of her gender works within the story too. I guess that is the excuse we all use.

As an exercise, I warmly recommend that you try to write a character that isn’t obviously a man or a woman. You can free your mind to writing a character that doesn’t follow any predestined behavioural paths, as you have to constantly think whether you’re giving the gender of the character away. Even if you eventually settle for a gender, you will have created a more complex person, not merely a character. And that can lead to anything.

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