Positive Stereotyping is Poor Characterisation

I read a lot of blogs by fellow writers. Politically speaking, I am slightly left of centre yet when it comes to creating characters and character development, there is one thing that leaves me slightly uneasy when I talk with them about how to create and develop characters.

I’m British so naturally I live on these things.

First, please think about this question. Is your character one of these things:

  • A larger than life Muslim character who calls out “Praise be to Allah!” and claps his hands at every ounce of good fortune
  • A black man who can dance / is good at sport
  • A person of Chinese descent who is naturally good at algebra
  • A person of Indian descent who is naturally good with technology
  • An old black woman who has a sixth sense (Spike Lee refers to these as The Magic Negro)
  • A gay man who is good at interior design and knows more about fashion than all the girls
  • A male romantic lead who is over 6′, incredibly good looking and ludicrously rich
  • Action Girl who is better at doing practically anything than all of her peers, especially the male ones. She is never just so-so or average at anything

Do you see where I am going with this? Many on my side of the political spectrum seem very intent on the idea of not creating a character, but a positive trope to “properly represent” a demographic. It’s almost as though the character has become less important than positive stereotyping in creating an image and fitting a number of tick boxes. I have many problems with this.

Firstly, it’s lazy. Tropes are never a good idea and readers know what to expect. It forces characters into boxes, rarely permitting for development, removing all hope of complexity and the subtle nuances that create a truly compelling character. That’s fine if you want that, and many writers make a career out of filling books with tropes, but they are not pretending to be doing a public service. I want heroes with fatal flaws. I want villains with redeeming qualities. I want anti-heroes you’re not sure whether to trust and I want sympathetic anti-villains. I want characters who are people with all the flaws and variations that means.

Secondly, it creates impossible standards for people to live up to and it creates expectations in the people around them who do not share their profile. I’ve heard women say they want a gay male friend to take them clothes shopping. I get asked about cars and DIY all the time (when I know next to nothing about them). We expect people to fit in positive boxes and that adversely creates a very negative stereotype. “Oh you’re a man who is not into cars?” *makes disappointed face* “Shame, because I was hoping you’d do an oil change for me.”

Third, it places limits on what people can do or are expected to do. Thus, we limit the roles of people by assuming they are “naturally” better at something because of their gender, their ethnicity, their sexuality. It closes doors and shoves them firmly through others whether they want to go through them or not. Why do we assume that all male airline attendants or male hairdressers are gay? Because they are always gay in films and on TV. Why is a woman naturally and automatically a better nurse than any man? Because women are supposed to be naturally compassionate and patient, more so than men.

I’m sure I’ve created a hornet’s nest here so let me do some science to back it up. Fascinating open access research article here on the dangers of “positive” stereotyping.

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7 thoughts on “Positive Stereotyping is Poor Characterisation

  1. good post. it is hard not to fall in that rut. i’ve always tried to portray my characters as complex people. but sometimes, readers don’t let you be true to your characters. I once had a female protagonist smitten by a balding man. to me, the fact he had a receding hairline was just a minor detail. something I put in there to describe the scene and try to show his age without saying ‘he’s old’. I got so much flack over that! folks said no woman would (really) want to fall for someone without a full head of hair. I thought that was ridiculous but several people mentioned it. so I removed that small detail from the story. crazy, huh?

    1. I don’t think it’s ridiculous – I think it is incredibly shallow of people to have said that to you. I can’t imagine that much fuss made if you had had a male lead falling for an overweight woman. I’m sure the reception would have been quite the opposite.

  2. I am quickly irritated and bored by characters that fit neatly into their stereotypical boxes. I want to read about flawed, quirky people. I want to become engrossed by characters who are contradictory in their own beliefs and learn how they handle those contradictions. Excellent points you have highlighted here!

  3. I think I have a bit of soft spot for the Action Girl/Bad-Ass female trope (usually spies), although I do always try and have some flaw to them. The trope itself is an inversion of, and reaction to, the Screaming Girl that was quite common during the 70s.
    Hmm… I wonder if I’m still reacting to the breath of fresh air that was Leela on some fundamental level…

    1. Of course. I see why it was necessary as a reaction in the first place, but I think it feels like an overused trope in itself. Just like the “black people are good at sport” it creates the notion that women are / should be strong, independent and good at everything.

      I wonder if I’m still reacting to the breath of fresh air that was Leela on some fundamental level…

      Yeah, she never looked doe eyed at the camera and asked “what are we going to do Doctor?”

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