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Stereotypes are generalizations about a group of people to whom we attribute a defined set of characteristics. Consider the images that come to mind when you think about certain racial or ethnic groups, sexes, religions. How do you define/visualize a liberal or a conservative? A fundamentalist or an atheist? A millionaire or someone living in a ghetto?
It’s important to pepper your writing with a diverse cast of characters and one way to accomplish this is to throw in people of varying backgrounds and belief systems. However, if you stick to stereotypical roles you risk boring your reader and losing the element of surprise. That’s when it can be helpful to break ranks and create a character who defies the norm.
Here’s an example from my novel “The Sin of His Father.” Matt, the protagonist is studying to be a Franciscan priest. He has tumbled into alcoholism. His mentor, Uriah, an old Franciscan, is taking him to meet the man who will become his AA sponsor:
A man, about the size of Goliath, emerged from the back of the house. “Hey, old man, you bringin’ me another one?”
Hog, as Uriah called him, appeared to be about forty years old, going on ninety. Hog’s raspy voice was small for his size. At about three hundred pounds, the six-foot-something man towered over the two Franciscans but everything in his manner deferred to Uriah. A scar shot down the man’s unshaven face like a bolt of lightning. His muscular arms flexed under a complex of tattoos and his stained tee-shirt bore a Harley-Davidson logo and barely covered an immense belly. Half moons of sweat bled out under Hog’s arms and the smell mingled with all the other odors in the house.
Okay. Stop here and think about who this man might be. What does the description so far tell you? Here’s where the twist comes in:
A stereotype of an ex-con came to mind, so that when Uriah completed the introduction, Matt gasped as though someone had knocked the wind out of him.
“Matt, meet my friend, Hog. He was a Franciscan brother for eighteen years and has been my friend for longer than that. Now he works with the poor at our homeless shelter over on the west side. He’s helped a lot of men. He’ll help you too, won’t you, Hog?”
Soon after this, Matt learns that Hog has a Master’s degree in English Literature. Who would’ve guessed it?
Writing Exercise: Take a look at one of your short stories or novels that you think could use some spicing up. Select a character who is pretty well-defined by his gender or race or whatever. Now write a description of that character and add an element of surprise. What does that do for your story? Let me know how it works for you.