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Bob Nailor

Stereotypical Characters

We've all written them that character in our story who is a dripping stereotypical person. You think you know what I'm talking about: that farm boy who is the long, lost prince or the ancient sage who knows everything to assist the young leader. Maybe it was the lowly servant girl who is destined to be the next queen.

That's not what I'm talking about not one iota.

I'm discussing the issue of racial or ethnicity profiling. Why does the slave always have to be described as a "big buck with blue-black skin, lackluster eyes and a hulking body" or a Native American grandfather as an "aged and wise Indian with heavily wrinkled skin and feeble voice" when telling the tale? I'm not just talking about males, females are also negatively defined. How many times have your read about the "black female with hair in corn-rows, two kids pulling or hiding behind her legs while she held a third in her arms as it nursed and the belligerent male ignores her screaming at him" or "the sari fabric covered her head and a thin veil hid most of her face with only her dark, smoldering eyes showing" as the descriptions.

Trust me, not everyone who lives in the ghetto wears their pants down over their asses with the pant legs all ratted at the ends from scuffing on the pavement. Not everyone wears a bandanna tied around their head or says "Yo, Momma?" to every female who passes their way. Not every Chicano drives a souped up vehicle that lifts, drops and bounces down the street or has a row or two of pom-poms on the interior or lining the front and rear windshields. Not everyone carries an Uzi. Winos and local drunks do not continually drink from their bottles of alcohol. Believe me, they have dry spells not often, but they do.

Stereotyping doesn't stop with blacks or Chicano/Mexicans. It goes even further. Who hasn't written a nice Jewish boy with a guilt-laying mother? Seems there isn't an Indian in America who can hold his liquor or Chinese man who can do anything other than laundry or cook chop suey. Don't even start with dialog — You rike this, yes?

So why can't a black man dress in a nice suit, carry a briefcase, drive a reputable car and go to work as a salesman or lawyer? Does he really have to be just a busboy or bagger at the local grocery? How about the Mexican or Chicano? He doesn't have to be a drug lord or a high school dropout with who runs around in a t-shirt, air-kissing to get the attention of the opposite sex. They can be businessmen, owners of reputable establishments, or even a family man who mows his own yard. The Orientals don't have to be restaurant owners but can be teachers or doctors. Native Americans don't need to live in hovels on some reservation and speak pidgin-English.

But wait! Stereotyping doesn't just mean picking on the non-whites. What Irishman or Scotsman hasn't been portrayed as a drunk? Or an Italian cast as Godfather types? Not everyone mumbles and offers a deal that can't be refused. Everyone assumes a Frenchman is a lover and controlled by his libido. Germans are still viewed as Nazis and all Swedish women are blonde bombshells in skimpy swimsuits. The English are droll and only care for horses or dogs. Try to visualize a Russian who doesn't have a walrus mustache, and wears a fur hat and a big bulky winter coat.

Racial profiling comes in all colors and we, as writers, need to expand our views and stop proliferating the stereotypes of the past.

Explain to me why Manuel Sanchez can't have a viable laundry. Bulk up an Oriental and give him a walrus mustache and control of a Wall Street dynasty. That typical Jewish man can be magnanimous with his money and donate to several charitable causes without any guilt from his mother. Why can't a white man have a fusion of Oriental and Mexican foods as his passion for a restaurant?

As writers, we now want to add diversity to our tales of wonder but putting a black man in the story as a servant or a ghetto wonder falls short. Adding a drug lord who is of some South American country doesn't do it, either. Using stereotypical characters, as portrayed by Hollywood, in your work could lessen the impact of the story, making it trite. It could even curb the chance of your story seeing publication.

Allow your mind to go beyond as my friend calls it easily picking the low-hanging apples. Stretch your mind. Reach for the golden fruit of true character descriptions at the top of the tree.

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Onisha Ellis
Do you think that further character development of the stereotypical person is the answer? That is the only reason I see for placing such a character in a story.
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Elyse Salpeter
Really interesting post. I think people do this so that the character is immediately defined by a reader. I once wrote a book that got slammed, as my editor told me my Middle Easter Character with the head scarf and long black beard was too stereotypical. My answer was, "but they certainly are not going to be blond little girls with ponytails." I think we need to remember that people don't always fall into set patterns, nor should our characters all the time. Maybe what makes our stories more interesting are the surprises they can offer - that our characters turn out to be very different than who we thought they were.
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Lisa Jey Davis
I love it! Let's shatter all stereotypes, shall we? I'm all about that! Great post Bob!
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Scott Bury
I couldn't agree more. I think the best way to add diversity to our stories is to take a good look around ourselves and notice the racial diversity we live in today. Put real people in your stories and your stories will illustrate the lives we live.
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Rebekah Lyn
Great post! stereotypes are just so darn easy to perpetuate.
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James Prescott
So true Bob - and it's a real challenge as a writer not to get tempted into stereotypes. Thanks for sharing.
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