Merriam-Webster defines stereotype as “a standardized mental picture held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment.”
Stereotyping is practiced through writing, films, art, behavior, shared beliefs, prevalent attitudes, and superficial religious practices. Writing stereotypes is a popular way of upholding commonly known generalizations through the ages.
You can find stereotypes across society, but let’s focus on stereotypes in writing.
Features of Stereotypes & its Effects
Stereotypes are everywhere.
In writing, we often find stereotypes in the literary context, and we’re talking about character stereotypes, character prototypes, plot stereotypes, cliched writing tools like overuse of cliffhangers, obscenity, stock characters, and so on.
If one is relatively new to the concept of stereotypes, here are some features to help identify them in a story, a novel, literature, and movies in general.
These stereotypes are commonly known generalizations across life.
They are acknowledged by everyone and can be easily identified in any context.
For example, the difference between two generations.
It’s a common stereotype that the older generation thinks of the newer one as immature and less hard-working.
In comparison, the younger generation thinks of the former as boring to talk to and lacking imagination – a dismissal of pop culture.
These stereotypes are so deep-rooted that they are hard to decipher in real life.
Take this sentence, for example. “We have a firefighter in our family.”
Most people will assume a firefighter to be a man when it could be otherwise. Dangerous, physically, and mentally challenging jobs are often attributed to men - mechanical engineers, CEOs, army servants, police, bodyguards, and so on.
Most implicit stereotypes go unnoticed due to widespread acceptance and lack of representation in media and life.
These may sound pleasant but often have an underlying stigma attached to them.
For example, “Women are kind-hearted and motherly.”
Although this sentence highlights a woman’s good qualities, it generalizes all women in that category with the undertone that women are gullible and will excuse anything.
The same applies to “mothers are forgiving,” “men are tough,” and so on.
Negative stereotypes explicitly demean the subject.
An example of a negative stereotype is “All politicians have bad characters.”
It’s an oversimplification of traits seen in many politicians and other people.
These stereotypes target certain types of groups in an open derogatory way.
Types of Stereotypes in Literary Context
We find many stereotypical characters in literature.
Intolerant Christian parents, a mother begging her son not to leave, an affluent teenage girl being mean to their classmates, the radical communists, and many more.
These characters are boring readers of today.
Modern readers want a fresh perspective that is ethical, sustainable, and has a familiar foundation.
Does it mean the writer can use no stereotypes? Why, of course. There are various literary stereotypes to choose from, which are harmless and beneficial.
A reader can expect to find at least one stereotypical character in a story. Writers often use stereotypical characters to create a familiar foundation that makes the reader feel at ease.
Stories are filled with generalizations, from stories of the Middle Ages to new releases.
Let’s look at the literary stereotypes.
A flat character is one-dimensional, has limited traits, and is predictable. They rarely develop and exist to take the story forward regarding the main characters.
They mostly conform to a stereotype and lack conflict.
Why do writers use flat characters at all?
You may use them for various reasons: maybe the story doesn’t require complex characters to support the main character or to act as the plot desires.
Examples of flat characters are:
- Hercule Poirot from the Agatha Christie books.
- Mrs. Malaprop from The Rivals by R. B. Sheridan.
- Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
- Shakespearean fools.
Stock characters exist to intervene only when the plot demands it. They have no unwanted predictability. They are a simple archetype to support the plot.
Behavior stereotypes are the hardest stereotypes to get past because they are inbuilt in our belief system.
Some behavior stereotypes include employers acting biased toward a married woman and intolerant Christian parents not accepting their child’s sexuality. Avoid these at all costs unless it is teaching a lesson.
Situational stereotypes are plot-driven and are not ethically harmful. However, they are detrimental to a writer.
Examples of situational stereotypes are:
- protagonists going from enemies to lovers
- villains becoming the hero in a cliched way
- sidekicks sacrificing too much for the main character (like Bonnie from The Vampire Diaries)
- one-sided lovers going at any length to ensure their love interest is all right.
Why Writers Use Stereotypes (Purpose)
Writers use stereotypes to create familiarity with readers or connect to a group that relates to stereotypical characters.
While you can use this well, many writers use this to gain quick popularity among the masses who participate in such behavioral stereotypes.
A writer may use stereotypes to color the reader’s opinion.
Gender Stereotypes and Stereotyped Language
These stereotypes are dogmatic beliefs about characteristics a person should possess due to their sex.
UN Human Rights says, “A gender stereotype is a generalized view or preconception about attributes or characteristics or the roles that are or ought to be possessed by, or performed by, women and men. A gender stereotype is harmful when it limits women’s and men’s capacity to develop their abilities, pursue their professional careers, or make choices about their lives.”
Language stereotyping reinforces racial, gender, and other types of bias through written and spoken language.
Language, the embodiment of a culture, nation, and faith, passes on prejudiced ideas across generations. It often has a limiting effect on people who don’t conform to such ideas.
Most people assume sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and personality traits due to stereotypes. These are some of the most complex stereotypes to deconstruct.
Examples of such stereotypes are:
- Assuming the female sex is only fit for household work.
- The film industry objectifying the female sex.
- Discriminating against an entire group or race.
- Assuming a small group to be a hostile minority.
- Improper use of pronouns.
- Discrimination against different sexual orientations in society as well as by law.
- Rejection of paternity leaves.
- The girl in the house serves snacks to the guests.
Archetypes in Writing Process (How To Write)
If you’re a writer and want to write a good story, you can use stereotypes to your benefit.
Literary agents often ask to avoid stereotyping characters in your story; however, do so if necessary.
Because media has shaped our minds, it’s easy to create a comfort zone for your readers by sticking to an archetype.
Here are some archetypes found in writing and media:
- Unacknowledged Genius: Walter White from Breaking Bad.
- Femme Fatale: Cersei Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire.
- Teenage Rebel: Huckleberry Finn from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
- Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
- Fat and Funny: Young Monica Geller from Friends.
An archetype will help your reader connect instantly from around the world.
10 Quick Tips to Avoid Stereotyping Characters
Tips on how to not write.
- Build deep characters. Give them dimensions and conflicts.
- Choose a novel genre. High school love stories make little sense today.
- Take notes from the world. Let your story be diverse, and the characters come from different communities.
- If stereotypes are necessary for the story, make them unpredictable, give them growth and arc, and give attributes outside their expected behavior.
- Steer clear of stereotypes altogether.
- Become aware of different stereotypes.
- Let your story be inclusive and independent.
- Practice kindness, empathy, and acceptance to build deep characters. Basing them on real people may solve the issue of characters being far-fetched or unbelievable.
- Let others or your editor check the work thoroughly.
- Learn from mistakes and feedback.