{Discussion} Stereotypes

How do we break stereotypes in fiction?

This post was not intended for this week, but in light of recent events, I feel it may be both prudent and relevant. Some of you may have read about the backlash a book, THE CONTINENT by Keira Drake, received this week in regards to stereotyping specific races. While I have not personally read this book and cannot attest to its particulars, many readers are claiming the author portrays many characters in a stereotypical and racist light. For most, if not all people, this is troublesome.

After all, racism is something humans have been fighting to abolish for decades, perhaps longer. It has taken generations to change the ideology that one race, one religion, one heritage is better than another. Even now we have not fully reached an equilibrium. We are still fighting this battle. And one of the ways we fight this battle, alongside many others, is through fictional literature. Why? Because it directly influences and shapes the minds of young people, the next generation.

Fighting for Balance

Yet, we are still struggling. Even as we acknowledge the abhorrent practice of stereotyping and do our best to support acceptance of all peoples, we may unknowingly participate in it. Such is the still case in many fiction novels today.

There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of novels that show a distinct separation of peoples. Some are considered wild, impoverished, uncivilized, while others are seen as educated, refined, and wealthy. Often times this is because of a separation in history, a geographical divide, that allows the two populations to evolve independently from one another.

It’s easy for writers to fall back on this. It’s easy to create cultures that are opposites of each other because it’s been done before. It’s a tried and true method, and an easy opening for plot conflict, but in so doing, one society often becomes ‘superior’ to the other. One society ends up being seen as ‘bad,’ when bad is merely a matter of opinion. That is the flaw. The portrayal of each society is what needs to be changed.

A Writer’s Responsibility

Just because one group of peoples doesn’t have electricity or plumbing or whatever ‘luxury’ items are required to be ‘civilized’ doesn’t make them bad. They just live different lives. They don’t see the need for such things. They’ve learned to prosper without such things. The real problem is how the writer portrays them as ‘lesser peoples’ because of their lifestyle, but how do we change this?

That’s a good question. The obvious answer would be to make the societies equal, but then where would be the controversy? Where would be the story, as many stories rely on this key element? And I’m not sure I know the answer.

I, too, am trying to find the balance. I, too, write stories with differing peoples. I think the most important part of doing this, though, is showing the flaws and strengths of both cultures. Make them balanced in other ways if not in technology or education. While one society may have technology, they may be narrow-minded, they may be callous, they may be apathetic. While one society may live off the land, they may have deeper personal connections with each other, they may understand the balance between human and nature.

Exercise the Balance

There are many ways to go about this. The important thing is to go about it. Writers are the ones who make the rules and set the standards, and readers are the ones to keep them in balance and catch them when they do something ‘wrong.’ We have a balance to keep. And the more we exercise that balance, the closer we may come to reaching an equilibrium. An equilibrium where people are judged on their actions instead of their appearance, their religion, or their heritage.

Like most changes, though, this won’t happen overnight. It will take time. It will take effort. It will likely even take some heartache and strong words, but where do we start? How do we abolish these stereotypes? How do we bring awareness? What do we strive for to make different peoples seem neither good nor bad? How do we find the balance?


And check out my discussion from last week:
NaNoWriMo

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19 thoughts on “{Discussion} Stereotypes

  1. I don’t know how we find the balance.

    One of the things that confuses me, as a reader, is correct representation of POC in books.

    With disability, it’s easy. Have a person have a disability, and have that disability affect them realistically. Don’t magically fix their problems. Ie: If your character has a prosthetic leg, don’t make it the bestestest prosthetic leg ever and she never has any problems with it or whatever. Instead, do as Matthew Mather did in Nomad, and have something happen where she has to get along without it. Or show the hardships that come with having it. Show that it does affect how they get around or act but it doesn’t change THEM. Heck, at one point she even walloped someone with it! Her disability had a role in her life, but it didn’t define her. Not even a little bit.

    But when it comes to correct representation of POC, I’m never quite sure what I should be looking for in terms of ‘diversity’ and non-stereotyping. I mean, obviously I’m not looking for people to be portrayed as savages, idiots, etc. I’m talking more subtle than that.

    Ex: Lets say the title character is Asian. Its established that she’s Asian early on. And from the description that’s given, it’s obvious she looks Asian. But then, at no point after that in the book does the fact that she’s Asian have any role at all. There’s no cultural differences inserted. No typical religious beliefs inherent to her character. She is your typical fighter / hero / villain, etc, that just happens to be Asian, even though being Asian effectively means nothing in the book.

    Is that good or bad or neither? Is that book ‘diverse’ or does it simply have a token mention of race to appease people seeking diversity without actually being diverse?

    Am I making sense?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lilyn, you’re not alone with having this question. I don’t know that I’m the right person to answer, but I think token race mention is also problematic. If only because writers are writing diversity for diversity’s sake. The issue with having a character whose skin color/religion/sexual orientation just being slapped on them like a title is that it portrays their struggles as the same as non-other.

      I’m not so much referring to plot here as I am character development. Certain microaggressions shape people and therefore a character should mirror that reality. When you’re “other,” simply holding your partner’s hand while walking down the street is an act of courage. Mind you, parts of this country are more accepting than others. But in the Florida Panhandle, interracial couples still face boisterous opposition and LGBTQ couples can’t hold hands without getting a few uncomfortable looks.

      These microaggressions shape these people in ways that is sometimes difficult to empathize with if you haven’t been faced with it yourself. Honestly, that why “own voice” stories are so important, so readers of all ages can empathize with people unlike themselves.

      I hope this answered your question… If not, there’s quite a few authors who tackle this issue on Twitter really well. I’d be happy to get you a list if you’d like. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    2. It shouldn’t be difficult to represent POC correctly. Not stereotyping shouldn’t be difficult. If you can’t tell the difference between stereotypes and truth then that in itself is the first problem. There is no such thing as a “typical Asian” so with the example that you used, if there’s no strong cultural connection then that’s just it…the main character is Asian. However the description should be carefully written because depending on how you describe her is could be offensive. Also, having a token minority is not okay

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I completely agree with you, Rae. It shouldn’t be difficult. People are people. We shouldn’t classify someone and expect certain behavior because of their skin tone, their hair color/texture, their bone structure. The fact that we do is the problem. It’s this problem that we’re trying to eradicate by bringing awareness to the injustice of it all.

        I would agree that ‘typical’ isn’t an appropriate word to use. Though, I believe this more from the stand point that ‘Asian’ encompasses a very large group of very diverse people. In so saying, which particular Asian culture would be considered ‘typical’. Perhaps the term ‘Asian’ in itself isn’t even descriptive enough to describe a particular person because of the variety of peoples in Asia. What are your thoughts on this?

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        1. The fact that the term Asian describes such a wide variety of people is even more of a reason for ‘typical’ to not be an appropriate word to use in this case. Yes it does encompass location but just throwing everyone together like that and not caring to know the difference between all of the cultures that that includes is another issue in itself

          Liked by 1 person

    3. That is a very interesting point you bring up, Lilyn. I hadn’t noticed before that disabled people are often portrayed more accurately than POC, but then again, I suppose I haven’t read many books with disabled people or POC. Which is a shame. They are all around us in the real world. Why should they not be around us in fiction, too? Is it perhaps because we have too many people expecting a ‘happy’ world in fiction and that’s why we see so few disabled persons or POC struggling with their place in the world? I’m not sure, but it’s quite a shame if readers’ need for ‘happiness’ is indeed crippling our literature, especially as a reader who is sick and tired of ‘happy.’

      I think the biggest problem writers are facing when it comes to writing POC is the fine line. Their characters are POC and therefore likely come from different backgrounds and cultures than your generic Caucasian character, but the writer doesn’t know how to accurately portray that. They don’t know how to make it subtle without losing it completely and so end up overemphasizing it to the point of stereotypes. That, unfortunately, I don’t know how to fix because it’s a writer’s problem (likely because the writer is an introvert and doesn’t often interact with these people. They get their knowledge from media, which we all know poorly represents everyone.)

      I think for a book to have diverse characters, the characters need to stand out from the other characters in the book. After all, the book isn’t diverse itself. It’s the characters in the story that are diverse. Yet, if they are surrounded by people like them constantly, they aren’t diverse in their world and therefore the book shouldn’t be considered diverse in ours (nor can a book be considered diverse in my opinion. It’s a book.) Does that offer some clarity on your question?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think by normalising it. Like in Doctor Who, there’s a lesbian reptile relationship, and no one questions it. And in this new Australian TV series I’m watching – The Wrong Girl – the main love interest is Aboriginal, and it’s not the point. Two girls are in love with him because he’s an amazing guy, and the interest has nothing to do with being Aboriginal – he just happens to be an amazing Aboriginal man. It’s the same with the main character’s brother – he’s in a wheelchair, and again, that’s not the focus. He just happens to be in a wheelchair, and the realities he faces (like his mum turning him over during the night, and later his sister waking up to do the same) is fantastic. It even explores how he breaks a glass sauce bottle, and the difficulties of picking it up … but he’s not made to be “special”. He’s just included, and his struggles are both the same as others (he’s in love with a girl who doesn’t love him back) but also personalised to him, specifically (he wants his own life, but because he almost died, his mum is a bit obsessive).
    Anyway, to me, this is the best way. To include it, but to keep it normal. To not always make it the focus (though I think that can be sometimes effective, too) but to make it as if it’s a part of normal life. If it’s projected as normal – which it should be, in all aspects – maybe it’ll get rid of the idea that some people/groups are more special than others.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! Absolutely, 100% yes! I agree completely with normalizing it and I hope to show that to people in the future. It’s really frustrating that we have to bring attention to something like this. People are people. We shouldn’t have to be fighting for them to be seen as people. And I hate to say it, but sometimes I fear that bringing so much attention to it is part of the problem. We’re treating it like it’s a big deal and, in so doing, it becomes a big deal. If we were to just make it a norm, part of the story, and not the main point, I think we wouldn’t be having these types of discussions. Or at least, there would be more outrage towards people who still don’t view people as people. Thank you for this point of view, Carla! Amazing words, as always!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you so much!!! But I do agree. I just love shows when it’s not the focus. I mean, sometimes it can be great – but often, it just needs to be normalised. Like in Love Actually – Keira Knightley marries the guy she loves. Not the black guy. Not how they had to ‘fight’ for their relationship. She just marries the guy she loves. And everyone is happy.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I was also thinking of Lost Girl when I read your comment because the main character Bo is attracted both men and women and everyone in the show is like: “alright. Cool.” It’s just so chill that no one even thinks twice about it.

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  3. Hi Melanie! Thanks for posting this! I have two thoughts on this subject.

    1) As writers, it’s our duty to see the world complexly. As easy as it is to write a flat, pure evil character, it does an injustice to the world we live in and our readers, especially in YA and MG markets. Using stereotypes to portray individuals or whole groups of people perpetuates the hate that derives from ignorance. Not to mention it stunts the ability to empathize with others.

    2) We need to remember that publishing is a business. Right now, the system is stacked against the “other.” This is the same in most medias. It’s why we have ten Batman movies to Wonder Woman’s one. It’s also why Luke Cage didn’t get as many think pieces as Jessica Jones did. The industry follows the money. It’s a sad truth. But if we’re going to have diversity – awesome, non-stereotyped diversity – be more common place in literature, we have to show the publishing industry that those books and stories are worth investing in. Buy book by diverse authors, tweet at editors and publishers that you want more “own voices” stories, and lastly, like Melanie said, hold authors accountable who misrepresent the “other” with stereotypes and cop-outs.

    These are just my thoughts. Thanks again, Melanie for posting!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Bree! Thanks for commenting! ^.^

      I love your first sentence: “As writers, it’s our duty to see the world complexly,” because I fear this is lost a lot on writers. Writers are told to write about what they know, but if those writers are surrounded by one view of thinking or one-way to write a book, then that is often what comes out, whether it’s an appropriate outlook or not. It’s a shame, but it happens.

      I think one of the best ways for an author to overcome this incomplete view of the world is to experience it, which I know is hard for many introvert writers. However, it’s necessary. After all, I for one am sick and tired of the same story being written over and over again. It’s boring, and it doesn’t represent the diverse and variable stories that are in the world.

      Liked by 1 person

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