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.