Monday, November 05, 2007

Types and Stereotypes

Nu Rose,
Henri Matisse,
oil on canvas, 1936.

Annoyed by stereotypes about middle-aged women -- the whole fat, frumpy and over-forty mold -- the Anti-Wife is running a contest/challenge (with prezzies) for a male or female profile which does not conform to the standard over-the-hill mode.

And at Murder She Writes, a discussion in progress deals with the viability of mature romance heroines.

There's always a lot of projection involved in this sort of discussion and mis-application of demographics , as well as societal expectations and assumptions about sex over 35, etc., etc. -- which I won't get into. These various points of view are well and articulately presented over there.

Writers should try to avoid stereotypes -- that's a given -- but I wonder about types.

I'm not sure they are the same thing -- especially in terms of minor characters introduced in a novel.

Their brief appearances do not justify excessive individualization; and further, any protagonist is likely, much like anyone in real life, to quickly classify such chance-met characters accordingly -- that is, according to type.

Digging through the MS of Tempest in Time, (the heroine of which is over forty, btw) I came across this passage:

The conference moderator, Miss Cheltingham, a commanding female with a mellifluous voice -- who should never, never wear red -- began her welcoming spiel.

"Our Documentary will consist of live re-enactments Enhanced by voice-overs of contextual information, alternating with Readings from the historical record, film slides of the countryside as it is today, and excerpts from our Assembled experts' Dissection of the Legend."

She paused and spread both hands wide. A portly man beside her moved back a pace.

"First on our itinery I invite you to tour Durham Castle and the Cathedral. The Famous Falchion rests in the Cathedral's Treasury where we will view it, along with other Significant relics of this area, such as St. Cuthbert's pectoral Cross and the Tomb of the Venerable Bede. The bus for this most Important tour leaves in the morning at 8:3 Sharp."

Miss Cheltingham folded her arms as if to emphasize they were expected To Be On Time.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this promises to be an engaging and exciting Travel in Time."

She beamed at them as if they were all very Good Children.

Miss Cheltingham is definitely a type. A recognizable type, forsooth.

A type one may encounter at a horticultural society meeting as often as at a business conference.

But is she a stereotype?

Quite possibly. I hope she serves, incidentally, as a contrast to the main character.

Those sweet little/raunchy little old ladies, the dirty old/wise old men, the smart-assed/mouthy and/or adorable kids -- or the power-suited, rising-fifty spinsters -- have their roles in fiction.

Because we encounter them in real life.

With Great Pleasure I Announce:

Some of you long-time readers may remember my sister-friend Bonnie.
(Had we met when we were younger, we probably would have ended up sharing adjoining cells.)

If you check out the link below you will see why she has been comment- absent. In addition to writing and life, she has been horrendously busy building a terrific platform in her genre. Take note.

Terry Burns of Hartline Literary has been lucky enough to snag and sign her as a client to represent her thriller Touched by Fire.

Usually we think writers are the lucky ones when they acquire an agent.

This time I think Mr. Burns is the fortunate party. Because Bonnie -- to use the venacular -- rocks.
Congratulations, Mr. Burns. You have a winner!


Vesper said...

I think we all have in our heads our own little library of clichés and stereotypes for which we reach too quickly. It’s not easy to invent something fully new. Sometimes, it’s difficult even to recognise them in our writings! As you said, we encounter them in real life.

Don’t you find that we tend to give our main characters an age closer to our own? When we were twenty, thirty or forty looked like an eternity away and thirty or forty-year olds were old. Now, suddenly, we don’t feel that anymore and, as we walk through that “territory,” we know that we’re not over any hill, that we’re just human beings, with our needs, our desires, our dreams…

Thank you for the interesting links and huge congratulations to your friend Bonnie.

Church Lady said...

AW's contest is a fun exercise. I hope lots of people will go take a look and give it a try.

Congratulations to your friend Bonnie!!

I like your distinction between type and stereotype. I think there must be some validity, or marketing departments wouldn't exist.

Bernita said...

Vesper, one could claim that there are no "new" characters, just as there are no "new" plots - merely an application of current details.
Age stereotypes may be one of the most egregious of all - perhaps outpacing class, gender and ethnicity.

Indeed, Chris.
And some "types" are perennially fascinating, even reassuring, to readers. And I would hate to see them dismissed as stereotypes to be avoided.

bunnygirl said...

Stereotypes are acceptable for minor characters whose only role is to fill out a scene. You'll end up with something longer than War and Peace if you try to round out every store clerk, every cop, every street beggar, or whatever kind of people populate the fringes of your novel. But stereotyped MCs and secondaries are boring.

I have a lot of middle-aged characters in my fiction and they're all active and savvy. They ride horses, they have love affairs, they build and create. They may have children (bio or adopted) but their own lives aren't any more defined by them than they are by their elderly relatives.

In fact, I'd say that my biggest beef with middle aged fictional characters I've encountered (especially women) is that they tend to spend most of their time angsting over their kids instead of living their lives.

For some fun middle-aged characters, I recommend "The Doomsday Book" by Connie Willis. While the story centers around teenage Kivrin's time-travel to the Middle Ages, the ones who steal the show for me are the middle-aged male professor who tries to find her when things go wrong, and the middle-aged female doctor who leads the way in fighting a deadly flu outbreak.

We rock as we get older! More books need to show this!

And speaking of people who rock, huge congrats to Bonnie!

Anonymous said...

Congratulations Bonnie!!

Bernita said...

Nicely said, Bunny. Thank you.

Hope you email Bonnie direct, Jason!
She has certainly earned - and deserves - every good wish.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I think it's a fine balance, as everything is. If you make up an entirely atypical character, then they are unrecognizable and often unsympathetic. But if you sprinkle in some stereotype, then suddenly your reader has something familiar to latch onto.

Charles Gramlich said...

I think the differentiation between types and stereotypes is useful. I mean at what point do stereotypes become so narrow that they encompass a single person. The "type" also seems to allow more flexibility.

Bernita said...

A very good point, SS.

And another one, Charles.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

dbmhHey sister girl! Thanks for the shoutout, and thanks to all who have wished me well!

My head is swimming, and I've learned to live on five hours of sleep...LOL, literally!

I have had occasion to use sterotypical minor characters...mainly because we meet these kind of characters every day of the week. But I always have a major character make some kind of reference to the afore mentioned behavior!

Billy said...

Very interesting question you bring up about types, Bernita. I suppose one can go over the top with any given type, but as you aptly point out, they do exist. Cheltingham was a wonderful example. I have some ex-inlaws who put the "stereo" in stereotype. Believe me, they have woofers and tweeters going at full blast. Many people say that southerners are over the top, and yes, Hollywood has run way too far with that ball. There is no cajun accent or southern drawl in New Orleans--or within 200 miles. People here laughed at THE BIG EASY when it came out, tring to figure out what the hell Dennis Quaid was saying onscreen. Ironically, the only accent NO has is a Brooklyn accent, mostly in the suburbs--the fabled ninth ward where the first levee breach occurred. But ticket buyers would never believe it. It's common to hear people in NO say , "Hey dawlin', where yat?" Go figure :)

Ello said...

I do agree that there are types as opposed to stereotypes. I think of stereotypes as being negative traits wrapped together to form a character. Each trait might not be negative in and of itself, but combined together they form a type that is usually a denigration of a certain type of person. Where as personalities do come in all types and making that distinction, without stereotyping, is a fine but important line for an author to follow.

Bernita said...

Any time, my Bonnie. Happy news.
I don't see how we can avoid types and even stereotypes at times.We do meet them.

Yep, Billy, accents are used as a stereotype ticker.

Or having a character label others by stereotypes ( dumb broad, geek)Ello, may be an effective "show," Ello. May also have humor potential.
The labelling of fictional characters as stereotypes,however,seems to be the pejorative preserve of critics, who sometimes fail to distinguish between archetypes, types and true stereotypes.
I tend to call stereotype more in terms of treatment than by type.

Angie said...

Their brief appearances do not justify excessive individualization; and further, any protagonist is likely, much like anyone in real life, to quickly classify such chance-met characters accordingly -- that is, according to type.

Absolutely. It's one thing to flesh out protags and major supporting characters; they're on stage long enough and often enough for us to provide enough details, and to show the reader enough of their characteristics and voices and moods and values and interests and whatever all else.

But the bit players can be off-the-shelf types and usually should be. Making them three dimensional and fully rounded and quirky and interesting would give them too much importance. It'd set up expectations in the reader's mind that the writer has no intention of fulfilling, which would leave the reader feeling dissatisfied and maybe even cheated. It'd be rather like the old theater saw -- having a gun hanging over the fireplace in Act One and not ever firing it.

Anything that gets a lot of description or fleshing out in a story is assumed by the reader to be important and worth noting and remembering. Writers need to use these signals properly, unless there's a specific reason for doing otherwise -- for red herring characters in a mystery, for example. But usually following the rules means communicating clearly with the readers, to ensure that they're catching what you're pitching.


Bernita said...

Damn, Angie, that was well-expressed. Thank you.
The dumb waitress, the pimply-faced messenger boy, the old fart, should be snap-shot stereotypes at times.
Let's not confuse the forests with the trees.

raine said...

Hmmm...I suppose the difference between 'type' and 'stereotype' would lie not only in the oversimplification aspect, but in the frequency of use of said 'typing'?
As stated--sometimes difficult to avoid, especially with minor characters that we gloss over in the process.
And I like the excerpt. I know the type, lol.

Huge congratulations, Bonnie!

Kate Thornton said...

There's types and there's types, and I have always found your characters true as well as - on occasion - true to type. We need types, the same way we sometimes dress or act in type for clarity of purpose.

And fab congrats to Bonnie! Great News!!

Scott from Oregon said...

Everytime you use a word or a phrase or several of each to describe someone, you are "typing" them.

Be it in real life, or in fiction.

I've never seen the problem in this.

We use narrow words to define wide impressions all the time. Sad. Curious. Bland. Just what do those words actually mean?

I think when we've seen the type too many times, we want to call it something, so we give it a name like stereotype. I suppose the trick is to use a less-used recognizable type...

Carla said...

Congratulations to Bonnie!

Your Miss Cheltingham is immediately recognisable, which is just what's wanted for a secondary character. She's distinct enough to be more than a placeholder (Third Lady-In-Waiting, Second Policeman) without stealing the show.

Bernita said...

"lie not only in the oversimplification aspect, but in the frequency of use of said 'typing'?"

That's it, Raine! Exactly - therein lies proper criticism of use of types. Thank you.

Thank you, Kate.
"We need types, the same way we sometimes dress or act in type for clarity of purpose."
And that's another aspect. We sometimes deliberately conform to type. Characters may too, but the protagonist can only report his/her impressions.And I don't think it is somehow wrong for a character to do so.

My thoughts follow yours, Scott.
Labelling is useful, but at the same time, limiting.

Bernita said...

The obvious value of reader recognition.
Comfort characters, as it were, who are logically there, help promote the plot, but never detract from the main characters.
Thank you, Carla.

Gabriele C. said...

Mrs Cheltingham reminds me of my preschool teacher. And I questioned her authority almost from the first day.

We did not get along well.

She did not get along well with my father, either, when she tried to complain to him. :)

Bernita said...

I was more fortunate, Gabriele, I didn't run into that sort until the nineth grade.
Miss Cheltingham is the type we always refer to in this family as "jolly hockey socks."

writtenwyrdd said...

I like what Angie has to say, but recently I was arguing for expanding on these bit players to individuate them (selectively, of course.) There's that interesting fine line to walk where you decide if your waitress needs a bit of a quirk to make the writing or scene interesting, or if you need it because it's a hint that they are coming back.

I think, after giving this some thought, that the bit players that repeat get a larger ration of individuality.

Bernita said...

"that the bit players that repeat get a larger ration of individuality:
I agree, Written.
A good rule o' thumb.

Sam said...

I don't like stereotypes and I get very bored with characterw who are predictable. I like surprise.

Matisse did NOT know how to do feet, did he?

Bernita said...

My impression as well, Sam.

The Anti-Wife said...

Stereotype: Preconceived, simplistic description of all members of a given group that leads to having certain expectations, often inaccurate and prejudicial, about members of that group without regard to individual differences.

Miss Cheltingham seems more of a type than a stereotype.

Congratulations Bonnie!

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Thanks for all the additional well wishes!

I love signing up for email follow-ups!

Bernita said...

I hope so, AW, at least in writerly terms.

SzélsőFa said...

Oh, finally I had some time to read through the entry and the comments! As always, it was worth it!
I have never thought about making a difference as such, between types and stereotypes, but it sound reasonable.
Types can be useful, but there's a fine balance between having a type, and spicing up the writing and having a boring stereotype.
I also liked Angie's and Scott's points.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Szelsofa.
Good comments from all.