Why Your Characters SHOULD Be Based on Stereotypes

Rough Sketch of Da Vinci’s Last Supper
Some stereotypes are positive, some are negative.  ALL have some element of truth.

Don’t gasp.  It’s true!  I dare you to tell me that you’ve never met a dumb blond.  I DARE YOU. 

See! I knew you couldn’t. 

The best, most memorable characters are based on stereotypes. Seriously.  Look at this list:

Jane Eyre was an ugly governess. 
Jay Gatsby was a rich playboy. 
Professor Moriarty was an evil genius. 
Samwise Gamgee was a trusty sidekick.
Scarlett O’Hara was a spoiled Southern Belle.
Elle Woods was a dumb blond.
Daniel Ocean (Ocean’s Eleven) was a likeable thief.
Maverick (from Top Gun) was a…well…a maverick pilot. 
Rudy was a stupid jock.
Buffy (at least in the movie) was a spastic cheerleader. 

Someone reading this in shock.  Did I just call Jane Eyre and Jay Gatsby stereotypes?  Yes.  Yes, I did. 

In each of those instances, the author has given the reader something with which they can immediately identify…sort of like a pencil drawing.  The reader sees the shape the character is going to take, accepts it for what it is, and sets mental expectations (Maybe they think Jay Gatsby will also be a shallow and selfish womanizer).

As the tale continues, the author adds color, depth, and detail to the character (i.e. Jay Gatsby was a self-made man, striving for the approval of a woman he could never have and ultimately dies protecting).While the stereotypical foundation is still there, the final product is something the reader didn’t anticipate. 

Final Image of The Last Supper
And it’s totally awesome. 

There’s nothing wrong with basing your character on a stereotype, as long as it’s just one element.  Honestly, would you want to read an entire novel about a rich playboy who had no other personality quirks, history, or motivations?  Not likely.

If you’re worried about creating a three-dimensional character, try describing the person you’ve written  in three words.  If you can do it, then he or she is incomplete.  You have a stick figure.  Go dig out your literary crayons!

As you add layers to your stereotype – shadows of the past, patches of light for your character’s hopes, various colors and tones for their language and interactions – you’ll probably find improvement in other areas like plot, conflict, and stakes.

With that said, I’ve got some coloring to do. 

P.S.  Blogger wouldn’t let me in for like two weeks!  Did anyone else get ‘redirected’ every time they tried to log in? 


  • Lexa Cain

    Oddly, I’ve never thought about this. Instead of stereotypical characters, I usually write complex, conflicted characters that no one can understand, and my chapters grow during revision as I attempt to explain them to everyone’s satisfaction. Maybe it would be better if I wrote basic stereotypes with just a few odd quirks.

    Great post!

  • Becky Wallace

    @Redleg: I had to delve into my Freshman year Philopshy course to remember the difference. But I *think* an archetype is supposed to be an ideal…like the perfect form a particular thing/person could take.

    I don’t think archetypes really apply in writing. Unless, of course, you’re writing something mythological.

  • Kristan Hoffman

    It’s true! My writing prof and mentor liked to say that the best characters were usually “stereotypes with a twist.”

    Re: Redleg’s comment-
    Maybe “template” instead of “archetype”? Like, stereotypes can be starting points for drawing characters, but if we never take them beyond those basic settings and make them our own, then they’re not going to be fresh or interesting.

  • Becky Wallace

    @Andrea: So many people hear the word ‘stereotype’ and have a panic attack, right? On Wikipedia (where I always go for trustworthy definitions), it says a stereotype is an oversimplification. I think that’s a really good way to look at the word!

  • Jackie Elliott

    @Becky “Archetype” absolutely works for writing. Jungian archetypes, in particular, are still widely used in literary analysis. I just finished a course on children’s literature and if I hear the words “trickster figure” one more time, I’m certain I will scream.

    Mythology and folklore have a way of leaking into contemporary writing whether we’re conscious of it or not.

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