Thursday, January 26, 2006

Universal Truth of Stereotypes

At the risk of being spanked* severely for wading into this contentious topic I've decided, 'what the hell?' I'm going to wade right in there.

I think there are a lot of truths to some stereotypes, and that it is inevitable that they come out in writing.

Think about it. If a gorgeous gal is curved, blonde, pert and has an infectuous giggle, she's likely had guys drooling over since she was in a training bra. Chances are, that girl is going to be confident, poised, know how to use her looks to her comes with the territory when people are always paying attention to you and complimenting you.

Likewise, the homely, sullen girl will be regarded as difficult, ill-tempered, lacking in the social and fashion graces...they might just be a wee bit bitter, or a bit of a tomboy.

There are some things that are indicative of experience, and some of our experiences in life are based solely on our appearance, our race and our level of education.

One of the people in my writer's group was at BoucherCon a few years ago, and she said that on the cliches panel, one of the points made was that if you tried to go too far in being original, you ended up with one-armed sleuths because there wasn't anything feasible that hadn't been done before.

Face it. Some jobs invite stress. And there are certain things that are more likely de-stressers than others. When I studied journalism I soon learned just why it is that journalists have such a high alcoholism and divorce rate. Wow.

But the stress of it all was real. Even as students, we spend 50% of our time actually reporting. One reporter woke up on night to hear the woman in the apartment next to him being beaten to death. One of our classmates was shot and killed in Yugoslavia on assignment. I remember that. I got the assignment of writing up the 'dealing with death' piece. Tell me we don't feel, I'd have shown you a newsroom full of crying journalists.

In the end, though, you find yourself getting hardened. Maybe not everyone does. Some undoubtedly find the way around it. But I couldn't. I couldn't live with being that numb.

When I started writing my first mystery, I went to familiar territory. Two main protags, one a cop, one a reporter. A young reporter (well, a young cop too) still filled with idealism. Still believing.

I haven't written the second ms in that series yet, but I wonder about it. I wonder if she'll be able to hold on to her optimism, or if she'll become jaded and cynical like I did. I think that's why I've had a hard time thinking through the second book. Realistically, you can only get beaten on, threatened and witness murders and horrid things so many times before you might start getting a bit...cynical.

So I wonder, writerly folk out there, what do you think when you read a book and the characters manage to elude that? Do you find it believable? I usually don't. And I find myself thinking that its inevitable that these two are going to lose some of that innocence.

But I wonder how people will take it, anyone who ever reads book 1 and loves it.

What do you guys think? Is it possible to evade the stereotype and yet keep it believable?

* Like I don't know you want to. And some of you think I deserve it more than others.

And, in the first of what might be a weekly thing, a Friday Funny:

A couple has a dog that snores.

Annoyed because she can't sleep, the wife goes to the vet to see if he can help.

The vet tells the woman to tie a ribbon around the dog's testicles and he will stop snoring.

"Yeah, right!" she says.

A few minutes after going to bed, the dog begins snoring, as usual.

The wife tosses and turns, unable to sleep.

Muttering to herself, she goes to the closet and grabs a piece of red ribbon and ties it carefully around the dog's testicles.

Sure enough, the dog stops snoring! The woman is amazed.

Later that night, her husband returns home drunk from being out drinking with his buddies.

He climbs into bed, falls asleep, and begins snoring loudly.

The woman thinks maybe the ribbon might work on him, so she goes to the closet again, She grabs a piece of blue ribbon, and ties it around her husband's testicles.

Amazingly, it also works on him! The woman sleeps soundly. The husband wakes from his drunken stupor and stumbles into the bathroom. As he stands in front of the toilet, he glances in the mirror and sees a blue ribbon attached to his privates.

He is very confused and as he walks back into the bedroom, he sees the red ribbon attached to his dog's testicles He shakes his head and looks at the dog and whispers, "I don't know where we were,or what we did, but, by God, we took first and second place!"


Boy Kim said...

Hugs Sandrabbit. On a morning when I'm feeling decidedly unwell, and it's not warm here and my central heating system has decided it's going to go eeeeeeee-bang-bang-bang-clunk and not supply my radiators with any hot water, your funny has brought a much-needed smile to my face.

Diolch yn fawr.

John R. said...

Don't listen to him! He's spouting devil-language

The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you!!


On the cop/reporter stereotype front, done well, I don't think there's anything wrong with keeping idealism necessarily - some people *are* relentlessly optimistic and good-natured regardless of what life throws at them. But it is a trick to do it well, especially as it could deny character change, and if someone's the exact same person in book 2 as they are in book 1, it can get a little tiresome.

My temptation with that situation would be to have one of them keep their idealism and one of them grow more cynical. And I'd probably do it with the cop remaining idealistic (slightly less expected, I think. Not sure). Makes for good cross-character banter and all that.

JamesO said...

Don't knock stereotypes, they're the only way we can hope to write books which don't get bogged down in endless character development. The trick is knowing where the boundary is between stereotype and cliche.

We all make hundreds of little prejudicial assumptions about people when we meet them and as we interact with them. If we didn't we'd all be wandering around like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. In developing a written character, we need to understand how the stereotype works, use it as shorthand, and occasionally throw a spanner in just to make things interesting.

And as I read that joke, the dachshund was snoring at my feet. But he woke up before I could get the ribbon out.

Also: Bore da, boy Kim. Sut dych chi heddiw? Oes annwyd gyda chi?

Stuart MacBride said...

I'm with John on the idealism front. Everyone changes, even if we don't see it up front. I'd be tempted to have one of them struggling to maintain their optimism, even though it's getting harder and harder to do so.

And as it's come over all Welsh here, I'm going to go hide under the washing machine.

Boy Kim said...

Bore da, James. Da iawn, diolch. (Apart from my annwyd, that is.)

Unfortunately, my Welsh is limited to a few basic phrases, so if Mr Stuart wouldn't mind budging over a bit...

Sandra Ruttan said...

Oh, I like that idea John! (And Stuart!) Actually, if you knew the backgrounds of these two characters, it is the most appropriate option.

You're right James - we do need to draw the line between the stereotypes and the cliches. I don't think Lara or Tymen are anywhere near the cliches.

And Boy Kim, I'm glad I could make you smile. XO

Erik Ivan James said...

Real life forces us all through cycles of positive 'n negative. My characters go through those same cycles.

Sandra, you are a gem. Best damn joke in a long-while. Bring the ribbons, girl, and leave the knife.

Boy Kim said...

You always do, my dear lady.

Bernita said...

I like certain stereotypes, having met a lot of them.
And certain stereotypes are perennially popular with readers.
Because we are basically idealistic. We want to believe in the noble guy, the clever hero, the homely girl who gets appreciated, the little old lady who kicks the purse snatchers in the balls.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Erik, what am I to cut the ribbons with then?

Kim, as long as that's laughing near, not laughing at!

Bernita, I especially want to believe in the little old lady who kicks the purse snatcher in the balls. Tee hee.

Oh, and John, "Get behind me Satan!"
Now I can't wait to see what someone infers from that about my sexual preferences.

Boy Kim said...


Sandra Ruttan said...

There's nothing I can say that's safe.

Dana Y. T. Lin said...

Right now, I'm trying to work on a manuscript I started a couple years ago but had to put down because I couldn't figure out a character - he was wronged in everway since childhood, yet turned out to be gentle and compassionate. I don;t know how that happened, but that's my character and now that I'm diving back in, I have to figure out WHY he stayed optimistic.

Just writing a character that is optimistic won't cut it, but if I can figure out the WHY for this particular character, then I think I'll end up with something special & memorable.

Sandra Ruttan said...

That's a good point Dana. I mean, some people do face extreme adversity and yet remain optimistic.

I guess that's where we have to look at what makes a character ring true, and another ring false.

Erik Ivan James said...

Um, Sandra, nibble through the ribbon.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Oh, so you're not suggesting that you're so big I'd need a whole roll.

Dana Y. T. Lin said...

Um, are you pulling my leg? Or does the ribbon thing really work? Cuz I'm gonna try it on hubs tonight.

Sandra Ruttan said...

When evilkev snores I just push him over - he always snores lying on his back.

Of course, nothing works on our cat that snores (and sleeps between our pillows every night). And he's neutered, so I can't try the ribbon thing.

Let me know how it works!

Boy Kim said...

Not sure if it cures snoring but, depending on how tightly it's tied (the tighter the better, obviously), it feels good.

Ummm... apparently.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Well, I suppose if its really tight it would cure that whole issue of breathing as well.

Trace said...

I used to be a reporter too, Sandra. But not for very long as I went back to school to be a social worker, and that ended badly. LOL!

Sandra Ruttan said...

Something to ask about in our interview!

Kevin trained in social work. Lately he's given up on that and turned to self-help books.

Erik Ivan James said...

No, Sandra I'm not. I'm just a regular ole guy, but one that strives to do the very best I can with what I've got.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I wonder what it is about my blog that makes you guys so good at sharing.

Anonymous said...

Sandra, maybe your snoring cat is allergic to people.


Gabriele C. said...

I have one character in my Mediaeval saga who keeps his idealism despite all the stuff reality throws at him, but in the end, the gap between how he wants to act and how he is forced to act, all those conflicting loyalites he's gotten himself into, destroy him.

But usually, my characters lose their innocence and idealism if they had any to begin with (Talorcan fe. already starts out as tormented character, his development lies in overcoming his past).

R.J. Baker said...

Every time I stop by this blog, it has gone in the ditch, or, er, between a guys legs.

What's up with that?

There is a similar Irish limrick. Hilarious.

Sandra Ruttan said...

RJ, I'm soooo tempted to make a wisecrack based on the first two sentences of your post.

But for whatever reason, everyone feels free over here. And I don't mind, as long as we all behave. It's rather nothing compared to Stuart MacBride's penis monocle in the comments on his post yesterday (check it out at today's post is 'Does size matter' or some such. Stuart is responsible for corrupting me.)