The moment we see a stranger, we immediately start classifying her according to the groups we recognize she belongs to. We also, unconsciously, compare the stranger to ourselves. Is the stranger male or female? Old or young? Larger than me or smaller? My race or another? My nationality or another? Richer than me or poorer? Does he do the same kind of job as I do, or a job I respect, or a job I think little of?
The moment we have identified the stranger with a certain group, we immediately assume that he has all the attributes we associate with that group. This is the process we call prejudice or stereotyping, and it can lead to embarrassing false assumptions, needless fears, even vicious unfairness. We may wish that we didn’t sort people out this way, that we could be color-blind or gender-blind. Indeed, in our society most of us regard it as uncivilized to treat people differently because of these stereotypes, and most of us try to live up to that standard. But no one can keep his mind from going through that sorting process.
It’s built into our biology. Chimpanzees and baboons and other primates go through exactly the same process. When a chimp meets another chimp in the wild, he immediately classifies the stranger by tribe, by sex, by age, by relative size and strength. From this classification the chimp will decide whether to attack, to flee, to attempt to mate, to share food, to groom the stranger, or to ignore him.
The difference between us and the chimp is that we try to keep ourselves from acting on all our immediate judgments. But make the judgments we will, whether we like it or not—it happens at an unconscious level, like breathing and blinking and swallowing. We can take conscious control of the process, when we think about it, but most of the time it goes on without our noticing it at all.
The more like us a stranger is, the safer we feel, but also the less interested; the more unlike, the more we feel threatened or intrigued.
Strangeness is always both attractive and repellent. Chimpanzees show the same contradiction. A stranger is frightening at first, yes—but as long as there is no immediate attack, the chimp stays close enough to watch the stranger. Eventually, as the stranger causes no harm, the chimp’s curiosity overcomes fear, and he approaches.
Readers do the same thing with characters in fiction. A character who is familiar and unsurprising seems comfortable, believable—but not
particularly interesting. A character who is unfamiliar and strange is at once attractive and repulsive, making the reader a little curious and a little afraid. We may be drawn into the story, curious to learn more, yet we will also feel a tingle of suspense, that tension that comes from the earliest stages of fear, the uncertainty of not knowing what this person will do, not knowing if we’re in danger or not.
As readers, we’re like chimpanzees studying a stranger. If the stranger makes a sudden move, we bound away a few steps, then turn and watch again. If the stranger gets involved in doing something, paying no attention to us, we come closer, try to see what he’s doing, try to understand him.
Characters who fit within a stereotype are familiar; we think we know them, and we aren’t all that interested in knowing them better.
Characters who violate a stereotype are interesting; by surprising us, they pique our interest, make us want to explore.
As storytellers, we can’t stop our readers from making stereotype judgments. In fact, we count on it. We know of and probably share most of the prejudices and stereotypes of the community we live in. When we present a character, we can use those stereotypes to make our readers think they understand him.
The old man was wearing a suit that might have been classy ten years ago when it was new, when it was worn by somebody with a body large enough to fill it. On this man it hung so long and loose that the pants bagged at the ankle and scuffed along the sidewalk, and the sleeves came down so low that his hands and the neck of his wine bottle were invisible.
This description relies on stereotypes. You immediately recognized the old man as a bum, a wino.
As writers, we find stereotypes are useful, even essential—but I’ll discuss that more in another place. It’s important to remember that you can also play against stereotypes. For instance, what if the paragraph describing the old man were followed by this passage:
“Hey, old man,” Pete said. “You’ve lost some weight.”
“It wasn’t the cancer, Pete, it was the cure,” he answered. “I’m glad you’re here. Come on upstairs and help me finish this Chablis.”
Kind of turns our understanding of the old man around, doesn’t it? That’s part of the power of stereotypes—they set up expectations so you can surprise your reader. To use stereotypes, either by working with them or playing against them, you have to know what they are.
Keep in mind that while no stereotype will be true of every member of a group, most stereotypes grew out of observations that are true as far as they go.
The actual stereotypes a community believes in will change over time, as community needs and fears and other attitudes change. What doesn’t change is the fact that humans identify people according to stereotypes, whatever they happen to be, and you will, consciously or not, use stereotypes as part of characterization in every story you write.
However, in fiction as in life, the better we come to know a character through other means, the less important those initial stereotypes will be.