Thursday, September 20, 2012

Avoiding Stereotypes

by Rachel Coker


Rachel Coker is a homeschool student who lives in Virginia with her parents and two sisters. She has a passion for great books and has been surrounded by them all her life. When she is not writing or playing the piano, Rachel enjoys spending time with her family and friends. Interrupted is her first novel.


I think we've all been in this situation before. You're starting out on a new book, and you have a fantastic cast of characters all lined up. You're all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with all the optimism in the world. Everyone is going to just love your book about an orphaned princess who never knew who her mother was and is trying to escape the clutches of a jealous stepmother. There's a wise old wizard helping her along her quest and an adorable, sweet mannered little sister by her side. Then, somewhere along page 127 of your masterpiece, you pass your story along to a friend and ask for her opinion. The news she returns couldn't be more sobering:

 She's heard it all before.

Because you, my friend, have fallen into a dangerous pit. It's called the "stereotype", and I've been there before. It's not a fun place to be. You started off with high hopes of a fresh, new story of an orphaned princess, but failed to realize that just about every author has been there and done that and there's not much room for uniqueness anymore. The same goes with wise wizards, jealous evil queens, and sweet little sisters. They're all overdone and if you're not careful, they have the potential to turn your precious story into a boring, predictable mush.

But never fear, because I'm here to help you! As someone who's debut novel was the story of a bitter orphan girl, I know a lot about the danger of stereotypes, but I also know how to bust them. I'm not going to tell you that you can never write about an orphan, or an evil queen, or a sweet little girl. Because you most definitely can. I'm just here to suggest some ways to take the same old dreary ideas and make them fresh and exciting. It's all about adding the right kind of twist, and turning your story from boring and predictable to new and amusing!

So let's talk about the first stereotype. I'm referring to the mopey, depressing orphan girl. Some of you may remember Allie, from my book Interrupted: Life Beyond Words. She's a great example of fitting into the orphan genre, without being stuck in the orphan stereotype. Because Allie was far from mopey and boring. True, she was sad at times, and she still held on to a great deal of bitterness, but the girl had extreme spunk. She was sassy, and sarcastic, and had so many interesting mood swings. At times she could be happy and almost sweet, then the next minute she's throwing shoes and hurling insults. ;) The point is, she's interesting to read about. You never really know what she's going to do next. One minute she's optimistic and then the next she's cynical. She keeps the reader on an emotional rollercoaster that's always entertaining.

Another great example of a unique orphan would have to be Ella from Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. (Let's pause for a brief second to also talk about how much better the book is than the movie. Seriously.) True, Ella only lost one parent instead of two, but since her father is never around, her life is very similar to an orphan. And she's about as un-interesting as could be! She's feisty and witty and funny and makes life brighter for everyone around her. You never see her moping around or romanticising her lonely life. Instead she's out learning how to talk to ogres and save herself from a fairy's curse. That's interesting, people.

Wise old people are also overly stereotyped all the time. Probably because there are so many wise older people in real life. Whatever the case, it's getting annoying to read about it. Why are all these old chaps the same? Quiet, poetical, always speaking in condensed sentences brimming with wisdom and philosophy. It can add a lot to a book, but it can also make it boring. If you must have an older character in your book, why does he or she have to be quiet and wise? Why not short-tempered and sardonic or long-winded and vain? Why not an older man who shouts German curse words when he's mad or an older woman who constantly starts every sentence with a sigh and, "Well, when I was a young belle in Georgia..." That would be much more entertaining to read. Or if you must have a wise character at all (I mean, if your story really demands it and you're going to be that way), why does it have to be an old person anyway? Why not a smart-cracking little boy who's wise beyond his years or a pushy aunt who always seems to know the right thing to do and doesn't mind telling everyone else about it?

The last stereotype I'm going to address (mostly because I'm running out of room--I'm really on a roll and could do this forever), is the evil, jealous woman. Why do people always assume that evil-ness and jealousy go hand-in-hand? I wonder how many people in real life try to murder princesses because they're jealous of their gorgeous hair? Think outside the box. I think that people usually commit murder for other, much more psychologically disturbing reasons. Be creative.


So there you have it, young writers! Three examples of over-used stereotypes and a few ideas of how you can bust them. I've probably offended just about everyone still reading by now, but that's okay since I can criticize myself, too. I do tend to stereotype sometimes, and it's something I'm always working on. In my opinion, one of the hardest parts of writing any book is staying unique and fresh, and I'm always looking for ways to improve that. So hopefully this helped some of you in any way. Don't be afraid to think of your own ideas, or to attack other stereotypes that I didn't even mention here.

As always, you can read more of my overly sarcastic, sometimes helpful advice at my blog, and go ahead and like me on Facebook! My seventeenth birthday's tomorrow--it can be your early gift to me. ;)

25 comments:

  1. Happy [early] Birthday! This post was Iinformative and helpful. Thanks :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is a really good post! By the way, I totally agree with you about Ella Enchanted. It makes me so sad when people watch the movie instead of reading the book, because the book is SO MUCH BETTER. And happy birthday, Rachel! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know, right? The book was just amazing, but that scene where she sings in the movie cracked me up, too. And Hugh Dancy's not bad. ;)

      Delete
  3. Happy early birthday, Rachel! If you've made it to seventeen, there is a pretty good chance you'll survive the teenage years ;)

    I really enjoyed reading this post! I loved Allie's character in Interrupted!
    And I agree - I get tired of seeing the same types of characters portrayed. Unless it's a Disney princess movie. Somehow I never get tired of those.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Anna! I certainly hope so! ;) And I totally agree-who could get tired of Disney movies?

      Delete
  4. Happy birthday!! :)

    Very helpful! Thanks so much for those ideas...:D

    ReplyDelete
  5. Happy early birthday, Rachel!!

    Stereotypes is the very trouble I face sometimes when starting a new novel- so this post really helped. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Great post, as usual, Rachel. I really liked the image of an older guy shouting German curse words that popped in my head. Made me giggle. :)

    And also, I hope you have a great birthday!

    ReplyDelete
  7. I'm just going to go ahead and thank everyone for the birthday wishes. You guys are the best! :)

    ReplyDelete
  8. Happy birthday Rachel, and I'm already on your facebook;) Great post also. That was so fun to read. I want to go digging through all my old stuff and cool-zap all the stereotypes now.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Happy Birthday! great post and ohhh..you h]already have a debut novel at 16!...Why am I soo badd at writinggg!!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Happy early birthday! Great post, thanks for sharing. ;)

    ReplyDelete
  11. Happy Birthday Rachel! May it be filled with joy, fun, and awesomeness. God bless! Thanks for the info. I want to read Ella Enchanted now... I shall try to make my stereotypes unique. ;)

    ReplyDelete
  12. "Why do people always assume that evil-ness and jealousy go hand-in-hand? I wonder how many people in real life try to murder princesses because they're jealous of their gorgeous hair?" :D Love it!

    Happy birthday! May God bless you.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Wow, this is a problem i really didn't know existed. Now that I look back on my manuscript, I actually do see some common stereotypes. Thanks Rachel, for the really helpful and amazing post!

    Happy Early Birthday!! :)

    ReplyDelete
  14. Happy Birthday! Excellent post! You did an excellent job with this. I fall into stereotype far more than I'd like, and I think that the way you discussed this was utterly excellent.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Kelsey! It's something that we all struggle with, myself included, but I'm glad you found the advice helpful! :)

      Delete
  15. Happy Early Birthday! And thank you so much for this post. I'm starting a WIP and it is kind of suffering from depression at the moment; the main character is depressed because of a bunch of depressing stuff, and I really need to liven it up a little, because the only happy things in it are the flashbacks. Which are also tinged with sadness. I'll have to think of some ways to make this a less stereotypically depressing book. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  16. Happy birthday!
    Thanks for the post, it was really helpful as recently I've been worrying about whether one of my characters is too cliche.

    I agree with you on the book Ella Enchanted being better than the movie - but Anne Hathaway's cover of Somebody to Love was awesome. Loved that movie when I was younger.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Great post!! Some helpful advice there too. I had a LOT of trouble cracking stereotypes when I wrote my first book. A few thousand drafts later, I'm starting to shake things up a bit. ;) Which is fun. I think a lot of first-time-writers truly have no idea they've fallen in to the "typical" trap. Until they send their baby into the world.

    Happy birthday!!

    ReplyDelete
  18. Great post, Rachel! :D I definitely always love reminders to be aware of this tendency... ;)

    ReplyDelete
  19. From Amo Libros:
    Excellent post! And happy birthday!
    I have one example of a mentor character (they're the ones who tend to be the wise old guys) who is not exactly stereotypical: Halt from Ranger's Apprentice by John Flanagan. He's short tempered and sardonic. In the later books, he swears by one of the Skandians' gods so that he can swear without offending anyone (the Skandians don't care much for that particular deity). He is also possibly the best Ranger in existence, and just a touch lonely. Another good example of an unusual mentor is Al's grandfather (his name has completely flown my mind) in "Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians" by Brandon Sanderson. He seems zany bordering on totally crazy, and is eccentric even by Smedry standards, but there's actually quite a depth to him, as we discover as the series progresses.
    Ok, I'll be quiet now. Just had to share those ; )

    ReplyDelete
  20. Happy belated birthday, Rachel! You didn't offend me with this post. I found it a very witty, spunky, un-stereotypical post. :) So with you on how boring these tried-and-true forms can get...And I'm one who adoooooooores the old fairy tales. :)

    Sarah Elizabeth got me hooked on the TV show Once Upon A Time and when I was reading your thoughts on the evil queen, I was thinking of what a great job this show does of turning that queen on her head. Granted, I'm only on episode three, but I've actually felt SORRY for her at intervals. That's talented screenwriting. :)

    ReplyDelete

Disagreement is welcome. Rudeness is not. Please be considerate of each other!