Image source: geralt on Pixabay, edited with Gimp
In this installment of writing tips, we’re going to get real about writing topics, messaging and choices to help you recognize when you are resorting to "stereotypes" in your character descriptions. It's wise to remember:
Words have power, and as writers we must wield that weapon responsibly. Words can transport us to wonderful imaginary places, with imagined people and scenarios that resonate with meaning, suspense, excitement, longing, pain, and the essence of what it means to be human. That's what we are here for, as storytellers.
Words can also hurt. They can offend. We can (most often inadvertently) use words that are insensitive.
The good news is that it's not hard to avoid this pit of quicksand. We'll provide some helpful information to help you navigate around it.
A Short Sensitivity Training Course for Writers
In The Ink Well, we have approached the concept of sensitivity in writing in a number of ways. For example, our house rules state that we don't allow racism, sexist remarks, homophobia, threats of violence and bullying, posts about hate, stories depicting violence against women and girls or negative stereotypes.
We have these rules for three reasons:
- To make it clear that The Ink Well is not to be used as a platform for inflicting harm.
- To make it a very simple matter of dealing with content that is offensive or belittling to individuals or groups. (Posts of that type are muted.)
- To help the authors in our community to remember that fiction is about the art and craft of storytelling, not diminishing or disrespecting anyone with our words.
(Additionally, topics like abuse of women of can inadvertently glorify the perpetrator or cause post-traumatic stress for the millions of women who have experienced it.)
The content we publish in The Ink Well is also designed to support this emphasis on the quality of storytelling and narrative, and the avoidance of stereotypes. Consider these posts:
- Avoiding Cliche's
- Developing Memorable Characters
- Action, Dialog and Narrative
- Stunning Writing Examples
- Beauty with a Twist (a story prompt about replacing flat adjectives with colorful descriptions)
The more you focus the intent of your fiction writing on imaginative ways of telling stories, and creating rich character descriptions, the less likely you are to write in simplistic, insensitive ways about any class of people who may be offended by your words.
Content That Can Offend and How to Avoid It
The basic concept of stereotypes, and how they can hurt, can be summed up as follows:
Stereotypes suggest that because a character is a (fill in the blank with a type of person, a class, a race, a heritage or sex), then they must be (fill in the blank with a type of character trait, expected behavior or appearance).
Very understandably, those who are members of the described class, race, heritage or sex can take offense to simplistic, stereotypical portrayals.
The very simple way to not write character stereotypes is to give characters dimension. Write detailed descriptions. Use unique ideas and phrasing. Use colorful words and emotion. Use dialog. Animate your characters and make them realistic and interesting. These are, of course, simple best practices for character descriptions in general!
A Few Examples
Let’s say you want to introduce a new character who walks into a room, and that person can be labeled as belonging to a class or group. You have the choice to use simple adjectives and subjectivity, or to use descriptive phrases that bring that character to life before our eyes. The first choice will reduce them to a flat stereotype that has no value in storytelling, whereas the second can pique our interest, give us a sense that the characters are intriguing, and compel us to keep reading.
In the following examples, I've attempted to write a simplistic stereotypical description followed by an interesting and compelling one.
The man who walked in was so fat he looked like a beached whale.
The man who walked in had the demeanor of a war lord, and a thundering walk that made the floorboards groan. I shrank back and felt a kind of primal fear that made my palms begin to sweat, until he looked at me with a wry smirk. “So,” he said. “You must be the one they call ‘Tiny.’”
A woman walked into the bar dressed in a low-cut blouse and tight skirt that displayed her ample breasts and all of her curves.
When the woman walked into the bar, a hush fell upon the patrons. She was tall and had a striking mane of auburn hair pulled into a ponytail that ran all the way down her back. And she wore a red leather outfit that somehow covered her completely and yet was highly revealing. "Bourbon and coke," she said, when she reached the bar. Then she turned to face the crowd. "One of you shot Marley. And no one is leaving this joint until I find out who did it."
It takes some work to fill out characters, but it's worth it. It makes fiction jump off the page.
Antidote to Stereotyping: Fueling Your Mind
In the great wide world of literature, there are countless examples of amazing, fantastic stories that have nothing to do with portraying any class or type of people in limited means. So, one of the greatest things you can do to broaden your horizons and avoid writing in stereotypes is to read great fiction. You can find well-thought-out and authoritative recommended reading lists online. For example, there’s Oprah Winfrey’s book club. Here’s a list of all 86 of her recommended books from the beginning of the club to April 2020.
There are also many many reading lists for book clubs, like this one from Penguin publishers.
The point is that filling our minds with great stories fuels us to write great stories. There is no shortage of amazing ideas for fiction, and the ways to describe characters and character traits are also endless. So we have no reason to write about narrow topics with simplistic character descriptions.
What about telling stories of the abused and the oppressed? Yes, those stories must be told with research and extreme care. And it must be done without glorifying the offenders or making it seem as if women, minorities or marginalized people are two dimensional.
Consider any of these movies, which highlight very realistic stories of abuse and oppression: The Color Purple, Sleeping with the Enemy, The Dallas Buyers Club, or Precious.
Each of these stories demonstrates not just oppression but also its important counterpart - inner strength. And they show fully developed characters who cannot be accurately described with simple adjectives. As hard work as it may be to write fiction, it is extra hard work to tell the stories of those who have been severely wounded by society or relationships.
@jayna, writer and moderator at The Ink Well.
If you're looking to up your fiction game and reach that next level, check out my past writing tips linked below.
We would like to invite lovers of creative writing to visit The Ink Well, a Hive community started by @raj808 and run by @shanibeer @stormlight24 with support from moderators including @carolkean and @jayna.
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