Because, As Everyone Knows…

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about stereotypes. It’s something that has always bothered me: The fact that a person or group of people automatically carries a certain stigma or perception just because of some characteristic they have.

Maybe it’s because I’m a walking target for stereotypes. Why is that, you ask? Well, let’s talk about it. First, I’m a white American woman in her twenties.

Not enough to be stereotyped, you say? Okay. How about this: I’m a mom.

Still not enough? Let’s keep going. I teach at a private high school. And not only that, I went to that private high school. I’m also from Alabama. And – wait for it – I’m a Christian.

If you’re not picturing a Bible-waving redneck in mom jeans with too much eyeshadow on who thinks she’s better than everybody else and can’t fit all her money in her wallet, well, you’re better than most of us.

I’ve run into more than one person who is ASTOUNDED that I’m able to speak in coherent sentences. Because, you know, I’m from the south. Where nobody wears shoes and we stop going to school after the fifth grade so we can spend all our time shucking corn on the front porch.

I’ve also met many people who are SHOCKED that, no, I don’t believe drinking alcohol will send you straight to hell and no, I don’t knock on people’s doors and berate them for not going to church and no, I don’t think I’m better than everyone else because I’m “Born Again.” Because all Christians are just like Tammy Faye, aren’t they? Don’t they sit in judgment on everyone else while eschewing all things of the world?

I’ve also been accused of being a racist because I’m white and work at a private school.

No, really. I’m not kidding. I have heard the words “Private schools exist just so the rich white kids don’t have to go to school with the black kids” come out of someone’s mouth. While they were talking to me. And they knew I taught at a private school and that I, at one point, attended a private school.

Actually, this is why we here in Alabammy go to private school: Because our public school system is ranked 43/50 among all states. Yes… there are only 7 states with worse public systems than ours. This is a huge improvement from several years ago, when there was only one state worse than Alabama. Are there great public schools here? Sure, especially around where I live. But on the whole, the system tends to struggle a bit, especially with the lack of funding.

And believe it or not, many of my students are at the school on scholarship. And some of them aren’t even white. Can you believe that?

Ah, how I love to be stereotyped.

So the point of all this is, how does this translate to our writing? How do we present people in our books? Do we fall into the trap of turning a character into a living stereotype, or do we focus on developing their humanity? If we have a British character, do they always have a cup of tea in their hand and reveal a mouthful of crooked teeth when they smile? Or if they are a teen, are they automatically disrespectful and careless?

How much of our audience will we alienate if we embrace stereotypes?

Let’s give our characters a little more depth. Focusing more on their humanity and developing them as a person instead of a stereotype of a person will not only make our stories seem more realistic, it will also keep our readers from bristling at what they perceive as our ignorance.

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11 thoughts on “Because, As Everyone Knows…

  1. Mara Nash says:

    I’ve been talking to my students about stereotypes and perception and the way we see others in my freshman composition class. It’s been an interesting discussion.

    And honestly? I didn’t think any of those stereotypes you mentioned as applying to you. Okay, maybe a teeny bit of the Tammy Faye thing, but I live in a tiny Midwest town with 3 churches and if you don’t go to one of them you’re considered a heathen. My kids have caught hell (no pun intended) because we don’t go to church, so only from personal experience, I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder where churchy people are concerned. I’m cautious…okay maybe skittish…around them.

    Otherwise, I didn’t get the mom jeans or racism or stupid redneck stuff at all!

    This was a good post. It certainly makes me think again about my characters. *runs off to check for stereotypes*

  2. Raquel Byrnes says:

    Nothing turns me off to a book faster than a stereotype or caricature. I started reading a novel where I began to wonder if I’d actually seen the movie…turns out the author just created two-dimensional versions of “the gruff military boss” and the “rogue agent”…as a daughter of a military man…there are more to them than that.

    Oh…and I LOVE the mom jeans reference. LOL! I am a Christian homeschooling mom of 6…hows THAT for open to comments. =)

    Edge of Your Seat Romance

  3. Alexandra Shostak says:

    Anne, I love that you wrote this! I have lots of family in the south, and they are all very intelligent, well-spoken people (just like you!) I actually want to move south at some point in the next year or two. I’ll bring my hippie liberal arts education and degree in creative writing and all my Democrat ideals and everyone can throw tomatoes (or all that shucked corn, or maybe some spoonfulls of grits) at my stereotype! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    You’re absolutely right about stereotypes. I can’t believe how often I came across them in writing classes–and it was even worse when NOBODY said anything. One instance stands out so vividly in my head; this guy had written a story with such an unflattering view of women as flighty, slutty cheaters who can’t give a man anything he needs, and I was the only person disgusted by it. Other female classmates agreed with him, going “I hate girls like that!” It made me sad.

    I wish people would point out stereotypes more often. I try to push against them wherever I can in my writing, but there are some I’m sure I’m not aware of, and there are more that are just so ingrained in our society.

  4. Anne Riley says:

    Mara: Well I am glad you don’t think my stereotype examples apply to me! But I am so disgusted that your kids have been attacked for not going to church. That is so NOT the attitude that true Christians should have. Ugh. Gross. And anyway, being in a church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than being in a garage makes you a car.

    Raquel: 6 kids?? Holy cow woman, you are my hero!

    Elle: Thank you!

    Alexandra: Come on down! I will be sure to wear my pearls and raise my rebel flag in your honor. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. hal lilburn says:

    amen sista. too true. you might be interested in reading hannamosk.blogspot.com her post today is very similar to yours. A reader wants to relate to the MC – so what will the majority of people want to read? white female mom-indentity searching romantic who overcomes all odds (yawn). Save the non-stereotypes for us – the white female mother (or anyone)who wants to read something different!

  6. Liana Brooks says:

    We just left the Alabama school system. Trust me, if we could have afforded it, the kids would have been in private school. The public one didn’t always have running water.

    Although I note you left out a stereotype… you’re not a SAHM so maybe you don’t get this one: You stay at home? Well, either you’re a filthy gold-digger who just wants his money, or you’re an illiterate slut who got herself knocked up and never finished high school.

    The idea that someone with intelligence would opt to stay at home and raise kids rather than work a high-stress high-paying job is too outlandish to contemplate.

    The stereotype rolls over into writing. Mom’s don’t have lives, ergo the only books that should be about mothers are tearful tragedies, or bitter-sweet romances were Divorced Mom meets Mr. Right.

    You can’t be happily married and have adventures unless you belong to the Vorkosigan family. Moms don’t feature in adventures, sci-fi novels, or most fantasy unless they are the archetype of evil.

    Rebelling against the trend my second finished novel was about a mother of seven (single – but I forgive me for that) battling vampires and dealing with werewolves. Corny, and it will never see the light of day, but it was fun to write.

  7. Alicia B says:

    I know the feeling of falling into that southern stereotype. There have been many occasions where people are astonished I’m able to enunciate. They don’t like it when you point out they have an accent too, just a different one. Personally, I’m quite content not having those people around. I love our great state just the way it is!

  8. Dana Elmendorf says:

    Girl let me jump on that soap box with you. I HATE being stereotyped. Especially when I go back home to Tennessee and visit my family. Every black person treats me like a bigot because I’m blond and white. Or worse, when I come home back to California with my accent a little thicker, my acquaintances mimic my accent with a heavy redneck twang and ask me dumb questions like “Do you know anybody named Bubba?”

    Yes, good point. Don’t stereo type your characters, not unless their the villain. Ha! jk.

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