Stereotypes: or, the Trope That Got Away

by | Feb 6, 2013 | Reading, Writing

Good day, everyone! The weather in London today is bleak with a chance of scattered dreary. Wait…was that a scrap of blue I saw just then? No, it must have been my imagination.

I dithered around for a while today wondering what to post about, but eventually decided I’d discuss something that’s been annoying me about the book I’m currently reading (that shan’t be named). And that is…stereotypes in fiction!

This has nothing to do with the post, it's just funny.

This has nothing to do with the post, it’s just funny.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Stereotypes can occasionally be useful in fiction. If you open a scene with a pale, stringy guy wearing a blazer and glasses while poring over  a copy of the Duino Elegies, your reader already has an idea of the character’s background, likes, and possible career aspirations. But a stereotype shouldn’t continue much farther than that. As an author, you should then take it upon yourself to show that character as a complicated, flawed human being who transcends and possibly subverts any and all stereotypes you initially applied to him. Yes, it’s a tricky path to tread.

Because wearing lip gloss makes you evil...

Because wearing lip gloss makes you evil…

But more and more recently I’ve been seeing (or rather, reading) authors relying on stereotypes and tropes. My current (least) favorite is the trope of the “different” girl versus the “popular” girl. The “different” girl (usually the new girl at school) doesn’t much care about how she dresses, often wearing beat up shoes, weird accessories, and no make up. She is also invariably fascinating and intelligent, a fact made plain by the way she sits at the front of the class and draws/writes/reads all the time. The “popular” girl, on the other hand, wears teeny-tiny skirts, wears an obscene amount of lipgloss, and is surrounded by friends and admirers. She is also stupid, bitchy, bigoted and generally vacuous.

No stereotype appears out of the blue, so I’m sure there are cases where this is true. But more often it seems like a lazy way out for writers. Is it just too difficult to explain why a girl who likes to wear mascara might also like to write poetry or raise her hand during class? Does wearing thrift-store combat boots and a pink streak in your hair automatically make you a unique and thoughtful stargazer?

...and social awkwardness and glasses make you perfect.

…and social awkwardness and glasses
make you perfect.

There have been times when I have fallen into the trap of writing stereotypical characters. We all are bombarded on a daily basis by characters in TV, movies and books who fall into easy categories, whose appearances define how they act and vice versa. But let’s dig a little deeper, folks. In real life, assuming things about people based on how they dress or look usually gets us nowhere. So let’s give the same benefit of the doubt to our characters and let them shine forth, well-rounded and free from the confines of stereotypes.

Do you have any pet peeve stereotypes? Do the writers out there ever find it difficult to stray from preexisting tropes? Answer in the comment section below!