The tough but kind police officer. The African American who speaks only in street slang. The wise old lady. We know a stereotype when we see it, and we see them way too often.
The problem with stereotypes, setting all political correctness concerns aside, is that they are just shortcuts for character development – and the reader knows it. As readers, we don’t want to waste our time with characters we have seen far too often. Stereotypes break our connection with and interest in the story, the same way clichés do.
As for political correctness, I believe that it merely replaced one set of stereotypes with another. Instead of the tomahawk wielding “injun” who grunts “Ugh. White man speak with forked tongue,” we now have the meditative Native American with long hair, fringed buckskin jacket, and dreamweaver medallion necklace who utters greeting card wisdom like “We cannot own the earth. We are the earth.”
The antidote to stereotypes is to create well-rounded characters with clear and human motivation. Even a character who appears briefly in a story can benefit from depth and complexity. Such characters add realism and depth that draws us further into the story.
Listen to Bruce Springsteen’s song “Paradise” from his album The Rising. He takes us inside the mind of someone who is preparing to commit a suicide bombing. Springsteen shows the character’s longing for his loved one and awareness of impending loss. This image haunts and frightens us much more than the stock character of the rabidly fanatical terrorist.
Developing motivation and complexity is especially important in developing a character’s ethnicity. Instead of using cookie-cutter stereotypes to broadcast that a character belongs to an ethnic group, use ethnicity as one more way to add richness to a character.
Start by being aware that members of an ethnic group do not all act the same way. A Jew from Brooklyn is not the same as a Jew from Atlanta or a Jew from Tel Aviv or a Jew from Buenos Aires. Also, a Chasidic Jew is far different from a Messianic Jew or a Jew who hasn’t been in a synagogue since his father’s funeral. “One size fits all” does not apply to Jews or any other ethnic group.
Instead, determine what a character’s ethnicity means to him or her. How much does that person identify with that group? Is it something he or she is proud of or ashamed of? Is it a source of strength or a stumbling block? How has that character been treated because of his or her ethnicity? What about the character’s parents and grandparents?
By exploring a character’s ethnicity, age, or profession and its meaning to that person, you can create an engaging character and avoid the potentially offensive crutch of stereotyping.