What’s Good About Stereotypes?

These last couple of weeks my pleasure reading has largely centered around rereading some of the works Dorothy L. Sayers and Terry Pratchett.

This Will Make Sense. Honest!

Last Sunday, as I was cutting up apples for an apple/quince pie, it occurred to me that both of these authors get a lot of mileage out of using stereotypes to develop creative three-dimensional characters.

Yep.  You read that right.

I know, this seems a complete contradiction.  One of the worst things critics can say about a book is that the characters are stereotypes.  Yet both Sayers and Pratchett are repeatedly praised for their thoughtful and well-developed characters.  How can they be both?

What exactly is a stereotype?  Well, to oversimplify, a stereotype is when something – I’m talking about characters in this Wandering, but this can apply to plots or settings or nationalities and many other things – is oversimplified down to a few highly recognizable details.  The thing is, the reason stereotypes work is that there’s usually a grain of truth at the heart of them.

The first time I attended an archeological conference with Jim, I was bemused to find my weathered, long-haired, bearded husband fit in very well in the company of his tribe.  The fact is,  many male archeologist do wear their hair longer and are often bearded.  Why?  More hair protects the neck and face from exposure.  Also, if you’re living somewhere without running water, shaving is a real nuisance.  Weathered skin comes with working outdoors in all sorts of conditions.  Sunblock can only do so much.

I can already hear the “buts…”  Hold onto them.  I’m getting there.

Stereotypes certainly have a negative side.  However, the negative reaction to stereotypes has become more pronounced in recent years both as a very justifiable reaction to profiling and a cultural obsession with individuality.   The reality is that, not so long ago, people delighted in wearing the badge of their particular tribe.  And, no, I’m not talking about the traditional peasant dress of European cultures or Native American tribes.  When I was in college, the “preppie” look was all the rage.  Before that there were hippies, beatniks, and red necks.  These days we have Goths and so on…

I’m sure you can think of others.

The trick with using stereotypes effectively is knowing when and how to give the stereotype the twist that turns the character into a three-dimensional person.  An added bonus is the fun that comes when the stereotype acts out of type – or when another character judges the supposedly stereotypical character on appearances alone.

Remember I said I’d come back to your “buts”?  There are always exceptions to the stereotype – so much so that the phrasing for reacting to such has become standard in and of  itself.   “I never would have imagined you were a…” Fill in the blank: librarian, soldier, police officer, kindergarten teacher.  Or, by contrast, “He was so typically a fill in the blank that it was a surprise to find out that he fill in the blank.”

Terry Pratchett so often uses stereotypes as the building blocks of both his characters and plots that I could write an entire book on how cleverly he subverts, inverts, and probably even coverts expectations.  I’ll restrain myself to just one example here.

The classic “Mother, Maiden, Crone” triad is at the heart of his three original witch characters: Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick.  However, right from the start he starts playing with the stereotypes.

Granny Weatherwax is not just the wisest because she’s the oldest – the crone (though never call her that to her face, not if you want to keep on having a face).  She’s the wisest because she’s what you might call an intellectual witch with a specialization in “headology.”

Nanny is definitely a mother…  In all senses of the word.   She’s matriarch of an impossibly large clan, deliverer of numerous babies, and definitely an “earth” mother type.  In fact, the word “earthy” was probably invented for hard-drinking, gluttonous, highly sexual Nanny.

Margrat is the modern witch.  Let her speak for herself:

“Witches just aren’t like that… We live in harmony with the great cycles of Nature, and don’t do no harm to anyone, and it’s wicked to say we don’t.”

The next line is the kicker that swerves the stereotype around into reality:

“We ought to fill their bones with lead.”  (Wyrd Sisters)

Dorothy Sayers often carries her use of stereotypes  as far as giving her characters names that reflect some aspect of their character – although even there, she’s often being sly.  Lord Peter Wimsey is thought by most who meet him to be the stereotypical British peer: idle, drawling, “a bit of an ass.”  Even his family motto “As my Whimsy takes me” seems to support this view.

But Sayers swerves this hard to one side because it turns out that where Peter’s whimsy takes him is in on unflinching quest for discovering the truth.  Those who judge him on stereotypical surface traits are in for a shock.  Is the rest a lie or pose?  Not at all.  It’s just another part of a complex human being.

I could go on at greater length, but I shall restrain myself.  After all, I might fall into the stereotype of the author, former professor of English, who cannot restrain herself from pedantic exposition.  Instead I’ll go off and paint a horse…

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: