Wednesday, May 18, 2011

S is for Stereotypes: Are Your Characters Really Unique?

When we’re creating characters, one of the things we’re told to watch out for is stereotypes—simple, commonly held perceptions of people, like "smart kids are geeks". A few examples of stereotypes you might come across in MG novels:

The evil step-mother. Why is it always the step-mother who is a monster? It’s been done to death by Disney.

The smart older sister (or friend who’s a girl). You can’t top Hermione, so why not make your female characters stand out for another reason?

Teachers who get on a kid’s case because they haven’t done their homework. Believe it or not, teachers are not always cracking the whip. Is there another way you could show a teacher?

Girls with red hair. As the mother of a redhead, I know this hair colour is definitely not as common in real life as it is in novels.

And the list goes on. What’s so bad about stereotyped characters? They can come across as flat and dull because the reader has already met that type of character in other stories. Relying on a stereotype for a character can leave out interesting quirks, mannerisms, and personality traits that add depth and realism. If a character is too much of a cliché, it might be hard to connect with their problems.
Avoiding character stereotypes can sometimes be a challenge. Here are some ideas that might help:
Brainstorm. In the same way that you might not use the first idea you come across for your plot twist, don't settle for the first personality trait that comes to mind when you're creating a character. You could be choosing a stereotype.
Think about reader expectations. Are you writing about a hero or a princess? What does your reader expect? Change it up by adding an unexpected personality trait or hobby. Instead of the smart older sister, make it an older brother. A brunette. Try to create the opposite of what you’ve been seeing a lot of in your reading.
Use point of view. Remember that characters are seen through the eyes of your point of view character. Maybe your narrator sees the world in stereotypes. If not, the details your narrator notices can help to make your characters seem more real, and less like a stereotype.

Should you always try to get rid of stereotypes? Maybe not. Including a stereotyped character in a MG novel might sometimes be useful.
Short cuts to understanding. If your readers are familiar with “kindly old grandfather” they can make a quick connection between the book and their background knowledge. This can sometimes serve as a “short cut” that eliminates a lot of explanation. Or, it can serve as a starting point for developing a unique character when the story takes the character beyond the stereotype.

Adding humor. Intentional use of a stereotype can be a way to add some fun into your story. The stereotyped character can be exaggerated, giving the reader a chance to poke some fun.

Do you try to avoid stereotypes when creating your characters? If so, how do you make sure your characters are unique?

Links: *As always, let me know if you find a great article on this subject to add for our reference.
At Buried In the SlushPile, read about how seemingly unimportant details can lead to stereotyped characters.

Writing tips for avoiding stereotypes by Matthew Arnold Stern.
Over at The Character Therapist, Jeannie Campbell posts about ways to rejuvenate character stereotypes, for example, The Tomboy.

Susan Kaye Quinn of Ink Spells writes about moving past stereotypes in kid lit and gives us a look at a teen’s perspective on stereotyping in YA novels.

Blogger and book reviewer Meg talks about stereotyped highschools in YA novels and gives us the real life scoop.

Are boys stereotyped in MG and YA books? Hannah Moskowitz gives us one perspective.

Julia Daines writes with humor about how stereotypes can be useful.


  1. Stereotypes are avoided by adding depth to a character and unique details to the writing. And the better the writing is - the less stereotyped a character seems. And of course, flipping a stereotype on its head always helps.

  2. As always, great advice and lots of food for thought - thanks!

  3. This post gave me lots of food for thought (just realized I'm echoing Susanna above me). Nicely done, and thanks!

  4. Oh, great article! I'm absolute sick of stereotypes, in writing, in movies, everywhere. Will we ever be rid of them?

  5. I can't remember where I read it, but they said that the "red-headed best friend" was one of the most used cliches in MG and YA.

  6. Hmmmm. I've got a red-headed mom in my current MG WIP simply because I always wanted red hair. =)

    Excellent points made here. Thank you.

  7. I love your wed posts. My daughter is a red head. Our doctor told us red heads should genetically be extinct within the next 50 years because it is so recessive. You wouldn't know that from reading middle grade or watching cartoons.

    I think you can break them with details like a prissy girl who likes to keep her scabs in a jar (hidden in a closet of course).

  8. Thanks everyone!

    Brooke, I've heard that about redheads before. Neither my husband or I have red hair, so my daughter's hair colour was a big surprise (comes from great grandmothers on both sides).

    Great point about adding unusual details.

    Laura, I like what you said about how good writing can help characters seem less stereotyped.

  9. That's funny about the red hair, I hadn't ever really thought og that, but there are a lot of red heads in novels. I think it's because we all secretly want to have it!

    As for stereotypes in general, I think we are all labeled to a certain degree. It is when people get to know us that we break those labels. Same with characters, when you develop a well rounded character and let the reader get to know them through the writing, the sterotype is broken.

  10. Fantastic post! I'm going to have looking through my characters tonight! Thanks!

  11. Great post and thanks for all the links, they look very useful, will check them out.


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