One person’s minor character is another person’s stereotype. What’s an author to do?
I gave an early draft of The Murder in Skoghall to a couple of pre-beta readers. As a result, I lost one of them as a reader forever. Well, I assume so, because I haven’t heard from her since. She sent me an almost friendly note saying that she was offended by “that word” and my depiction of the Realtor. She was a Realtor and they are not like that.
Hmm. Food for thought. I know lots of people don’t like the F-bomb. I choose to use it when it fits a character in a specific scene. It wasn’t gratuitous.
My Realtor is such a minor character you only see her in Jess’s thoughts as she remembers the process of finding her house. She’s barely on the page. She’s one of those women who wears large hoop earrings and calls everyone honey. I kind of like her.
Did I create an offensive stereotype? Or did that reader have a sore spot that had nothing to do with Skoghall?
I don’t even know what a stereotype of a Realtor would look like. My woman with big earrings could have been an entrepreneur or a truck driver. Lots of women like big earrings and call people honey. I’m not sure why my character struck a wrong chord with that reader, but you can’t please everyone. Leave it at that.
It certainly raises a topic worthy of discussion: Can you use stereotypes in your fiction?
stereotype |ˈsterēəˌtīp| noun
1 a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing: the stereotype of the woman as the carer | sexual and racial stereotypes.
• a person or thing that conforms to a stereotypical image: don’t treat anyone as a stereotype.
The word stereotype has negative connotations. Nobody wants to be reduced to some oversimplified version of your most apparent traits. But in fiction, there are those characters who must be carefully sculpted and those who should be reduced to bold strokes.
The minor character doesn’t get enough ink to deserve full development. Using easily identified traits can function as a sort of shorthand. The character is easily understood by the reader to fill a certain roll in the story that will be brief and insignificant.
Why use these bold strokes? Why bother when you might inadvertently offend someone? Because even though a character is minor, she still needs to have presence. You want everyone you bother creating to have something remarkable about her, even if it’s only the fact that she wears big earrings and calls your POV character honey. Otherwise, you might as well surround your main characters with beige blobs. Indistinct, voiceless, dull.
I happen to enjoy my minor characters, the ones who are type based. They’re like adding a bright scarf or tie to an otherwise monochromatic suit. Some are better developed than others. Some start with a type and get personal qualities layered on top.
Take Dave, from the Skoghall series. His type is rural hunter-fisher middle-aged bachelor. Is there a stereotype in there? A derogatory one? Well, I think that depends on your perspective. You might be a rural hunter-fisher bachelor. Or your uncle. Or your friends. Or that kind of person might scare you. I don’t know how you feel about those people. But I do know that I like Dave. When I first put him on the page, I made him OCD to break the mold and create a person. He’s grown from there as his role in the story has grown. I doubt I’d have very much in common with a rural hunter-fisher bachelor, but writing Dave always makes me smile.
These minor characters are like the fun roles in movies played by character actors. We love them for their quirkiness, boldness, outlandishness, and for their types. Types because we can immediately identify them and we probably know someone who is like that. They amuse us, but not in a mean spirited way. For the pleasure they bring us, they deserve our respect.
Of course, a very minor character, like the Realtor, doesn’t need much development. That’s all right. But if you write a character who happens to be of a certain race or religion, you would be wise to carefully avoid settling for easy shortcuts. Using a familiar type, a stereotype, will bring your readers’ ire down on you and your story. To employ traits associated with cultural misunderstandings or historical trauma is to do your character and story a disservice, and you may be assumed a bigot. You might even know a person just like your character, but that’s not the point. The person you know is a person and there’s more to her than you’ve seen. There is not more to your character than you reveal on the page, so make sure you reveal enough for your character to be more than a type.
Avoiding harmful stereotypes is a matter of awareness. Does my character need to be X? If yes, what trait can I give her that will be interesting and individual, thereby avoiding potentially offensive depictions of X?
I really thought hoop earrings and “honey” were safe traits to give my Realtor. After all, my real-life Realtor is a man. He’s never worn earrings, that I know of, and he’s never called me honey.
I love my minor characters for the colorful fun they bring to my stories, types and all. For Beth, Dave, Denise, Bruce, Johnson, Jake, and so many more, Hip Hip Hooray!
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