Let’s Chat: Stereotypes in Fiction

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Hello everyone!

Any bookstagrammers out there? If you are one, comment with your instagram username below and I will follow you πŸ™‚

Today I want to talk about stereotypes. As readers of diverse fiction, stereotypes hold negative connotations. We crinkle our noses when characters become stereotypical, we roll our eyes, and we make a mental note to slam that character in our book review.

sterΒ·eΒ·oΒ·typeΒ nounΒ a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.

For example, there is that stereotype that Chinese kids areΒ nerdy, good at math, and wear glasses. I mean, how clichΓ©d is that? I want to blow a gasket and flip a table somewhere.

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Then I realized that I am a nerdy, nearsighted Chinese(-Canadian) person who is somewhat good at math.

So… am I… a stereotype?

Could it be thatΒ there is some truth to that stereotype? For example, when I think about it, there are reasons why I am nerdy, nearsighted, and good at math. And part of it does have to do with the fact that I am Chinese:

  1. I am nerdy: China values academic success. The “popular” kids in China are those who are smart and have high grades. A famous Taiwanese drama features a love interest who is the most popular boy in high school because he has an IQ of 200 and gets top grades in every class. Growing up, the most popular kids in my elementary school are the ones who have the best academic performance. I was taught at a young age to study hard, and I was rewarded for that.
  2. I am (somewhat) good at math: Math is emphasized in the curriculum in China. As a kid, I learned the multiplication table in grade 1. A lot of my friends took private lessons to learn abacus in preschool and kindergarten (I didn’t, which made me the runt of the math litter.) However, when I came to Canada, the multiplication table wasn’t taught until grade 3-4, and suddenly I was well ahead of everyone. It just seems that kids learn math earlier in China and they have more time to get better at it.
  3. I wear glasses: I had to Google this one, because I didn’t know whether or not it’s really true. Turns out that 86% of high school kids in Shanghai wear glasses, compared to 29% in Singapore and 3% in Sydney, Australia. Why is this? China has a super highly competitive academic system. Kids have to study their butts off at a young age and spend countless hours reading books (or looking at their computer screen), which increases nearsightedness.

But if that’s the case, how can stereotypes bear some truth, but still enrage people? I would still be super, duper angry if I were to ever see a Chinese character portrayed that way.

The issue comes when a character presents an oversimplified image or idea of a certain group of people.Β Everyone is unique, even if we do have some of the stereotypical qualities of the group that we belong to.

Some of us may appear to fit the stereotype at first glance, but when we delve deeper, there are unique qualities that make us who we are. I may be a nerdy and nearsighted Chinese person, but I also happen to enjoy crafting and pole dancing, and I can speak well in public situations if I put my mind to it. Other people defy stereotypes in general.Β Some of my Chinese-Canadian friends are terrible at math, or they are popular and love to party and socialize. And one of my Chinese-Canadian friends actually has 20/20 vision.

So perhaps, it is not when a character has certain stereotypical traits of a culture or a group that we dislike. And rather if the character only have these traits, and nothing else that distinguishes them as who they are.

But can character go too far to defy their stereotype? There are characters from the other extreme of the spectrum, in which they have no qualities of the particular culture or group they belong in. It is as if the author takes a Generic Supporting Character X and slaps on an ethnic label, just so the novel can be “diverse”. This irritates us as well.

You see what I mean? It is a fine, fine line between a stereotypical character and a character who is devoid of all characteristics that make them a member of a certain group or culture. We love it when characters break the mold, but we hate it when they break the mold too much.

As a writer, this actually makes it terrifying to write about anyone who is not in my ethnic group. What if I get it completely wrong? What if I offend without intending to?

Do you agree that there is some truth to some stereotypes? What do you think about stereotypes in fiction? Can a character go too far in defying cultural stereotypes?

PS. I refer to cultural stereotypes a lot in this post, because that is what is most relevant for me. But I do wonder if this applies to stereotypes in general: for example, gender stereotypes, or stereotypes about people of different sexual orientations.

43 thoughts on “Let’s Chat: Stereotypes in Fiction

  1. I think its true. in general, people can get somewhat offended by a oversimplified version of a steoreotype. Although we are all stereotypes in some way, we all have something that makes us unique so it can be offensive when someone creates a crass stereotype.

    Btw i just opened up an instagram account like yesterday! πŸ™‚
    Username same as here: thebooklovingpharmacist

    Liked by 1 person

    • Everyone is definitely unique in their own way. I do think it’s the oversimplifying that offends people.
      Thanks for dropping by!
      That’s awesome that you started an instagram account! Looking forward to seeing your posts πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Stereotypes are something we’re widely exposed to from birth here in the U.S. When I taught college Freshman Comp we discussed stereotypes in one of the first classes so the students wouldn’t rely on them in their writing unless they were discussing a stereotype in order to break it apart. It was always an interesting class, especially when there were international students in the class. (something I always welcomed)

    Personally, I loathe the Appalachian inbred, uneducated rope-belt wearing, Beverly Hillbillies, barefoot stereotype, because I was born in and still live in Appalachia. (though I have lived elsewhere including Texas, Connecticut, Chicago, and Charlotte) Inbred – okay, that idea comes from the fact we were such an isolated people until the early 20th century, but it isn’t necessarily true. Uneducated – the systems weren’t widely in place before that time either. Neither of my grandmothers went past the 8th grade. However, My father is a retired CPA, I have an MA+, my sister has a MA and an MFA, and my mother has a PhD and a MS in a related field. That said, no one outside the nuclear family, save one aunt who is nearing graduation with her BS, has graduated college, and many haven’t finished high school. It’s a sad fact. Rope belt – relates to how poor this area once was and some parts still are. Enough said there. The Beverly Hillbillies did nothing but add to the problem. And, lastly, barefoot– um, *looks at her feet* it’s summer, okay?

    All this leads to my point — there is a grain of truth to each and every stereotype, and it is fine for us, as writers, to carefully use those grains, but to use the overwhelming stereotype version for character is not only trite, but it’s flat out wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love that you explained some of the stereotypes that people associate with where you live, and it is interesting to read about where these originated from. Thank you for sharing! πŸ™‚

      I like how you say that we can “carefully use those grains”. I think that is good to keep in mind when writing about a character from a certain group or ethnicity. I am glad to hear from a fellow writer about this topic πŸ™‚

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  3. I think there’s always a truth in stereotypes since they didn’t sprout from nothing. A lot of people actually live up to stereotypes, which makes it justified. I haven’t read enough of a book with a stereotypical character to tell you my opinion on that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad that you agree πŸ™‚ I do find that a lot of books are diverse nowadays, so it is uncommon to encounter a stereotypical character, which is great! Thanks for sharing your opinion πŸ™‚

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  4. Totally agree, Sophie! I don’t mind stereotypes, so long as there’s more to it. I actually have a bit of a fondness for certain clichΓ©s and tropes, no matter how overused they are. In the end, I think what matters is the way people recycle and reinvent stereotypes, giving them a new twist πŸ™‚
    My instagram handle is @blamechocolate by the way.

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  5. I think that there is truth in stereotypes, even if only a bit, but we have to recognize that stereotypes are the unfair model we build in ours heads. Like clothing sizes, one size doesn’t fit all–it only fits some. Love this discussion!

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  6. Oh this is such an interesting post, Sophie! I agree that there is some truth in stereotypes, but it’s when, really, the writers are just shaping the characters using these stereotypes and them only, that it IS a problem because it puts everyone in the same box. There’s a reason stereotypes exist, but they’re just a little bit of what really makes a person and a character, and we all should and need to dig deeper πŸ™‚

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  7. Such an important discussion, I think! πŸ™‚ I think that even if there may be hints of truth in some stereotypes, relying on them in fiction is just lazy writing. People are so much more interesting and diverse (in every sense of the word) than stereotypes allow for.
    And my bookstagram is @riona.oinabha πŸ™‚

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  8. Stereotypes exist because they are based in some form of realistic truth, as you stated. Outsiders of a gender, culture, etc, see that group of people, notice a trend, and then plaster it all over the entire group. Is it wrong? Yes. However, stereotypes come down to one basic fact: ignorance.

    Most people don’t even know individual persons from the group they are stereotyping. Their only source of information about said group is their peers, their family, the god-awful, sadistic, twisted thing we call society. And because we are handed an inappropriate, incomplete picture (which is usually negative), we never take the time to actually get to know someone(s) of that particular group because we assume we already know everything about them. GARBAGE!

    I also agree with you on the fact that we can’t ignore a person’s culture/gender/etc completely. Why? Because their culture is actually often WHY that group of people are so similar. They believe in the same things. They’re raised to act a certain way, to value certain aspects, etc, etc. Thus, if you take someone from that culture (ANYONE), odds are you are going to find at least minor remnants of their past and their society. Very few people (if any) ever manage to completely detach themselves from who they are, but it’s very easy to break the stereotype mold.

    So, it’s definitely true that there is a fine line and honestly, it’s why I think authors should only write about characters with whom they’ve personally interacted. You can’t write about something you don’t know (unless it’s a completely made up race/society), and attempting to do so will piss off someone, somewhere because there is no way you can get it right without having all the facts.

    /rant :p

    Liked by 1 person

    • Love how you broke down the difference between stereotype and culture! I agree completely that stereotype is something that people from the outside label a certain group, while culture is something that comes within. Sometimes a stereotype might come from something that is intrinsic to the culture of a group, but they are over-simplified and do not show the entire picture! And sometimes stereotypes can be wrong.

      It makes sense that each person has at least a small remnant of the influence of their culture. I can imagine that everyone is influenced a bit by their upbringing πŸ™‚ and I feel that this changes from generation to generation as well. For example I am more influenced by the western culture as well as the Chinese culture! And everyone may be influenced by a different extent. Some people may be more traditional and take cultural practices more seriously while others may experiment with newer identities.

      I like how you suggest that we writers should write about people that we’ve interacted with. That’s a good way to “research” how a given culture/group is like. The difficulty comes when it is hard to find a person who is similar to the character we want to write about… what if our story is about an antihero (like a serial murderer?) personally I’ve wanted to write about a character who has HIV, but I put the project on the back burner because I didn’t know anyone who have HIV.

      Love your thoughtful comment as usual πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

      • I like the idea of a generational aspect. I think this is playing a HUGE role in the last two generations because the world has changed so much. It’s gotten smaller. There are more people. There is more acceptance and, most importantly, there is more discussion. We are not allowing topics to fall into taboo and by bringing them to the table, we are offering people the opportunity to learn about them.

        Personally, I don’t agree with a lot of the things my parents say or do or promote. I broke away from their faith because I saw the broken way it was being practiced. I traveled to foreign countries alone, as a woman, something my parents admonished and thought was dangerous and unthinkable. But that experience was honestly the most eye-opening experience I’ve ever had and allowed me to really reflect on who I am, who I want to be, and how I think of the world around me. By being open-minded, I was able to become even more open-minded. Yet, I likely never would’ve become that had I stayed in my own niche in society and home.

        I completely understand your point. It isn’t always easy to meet and interact with people about whom we’d like to write, as they might be very far away. However, I also think that we can research them, and utilize our empathy to place ourselves in their shoes. Too often, I think writers view people as ‘other.’ (Well, honestly, people view people as ‘other.’) Despite what they may say, we don’t truly ever put ourselves in their shoes. We don’t truly empathize with nor understand, meaning we are only giving a facade of who that person is. In my experience, the best writers are those who understand people. Once you understand that there is no ‘other’ and that we are all people and that ‘other’ person could very well have been you and they are like you, then it’s easier to write about them. Does that make any sense at all? :p

        Hahaha! Terribly sorry these comments are so long. I apparently have a lot to say on this. Darn you, worldly experience. πŸ˜‚

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      • I agree completely! Things have definitely changed over the past decades. I feel like it has to do with how connected the world is now, and how much easier it is to travel to new places and talk with people from other countries. People are becoming more intermingled through the Internet and through travel/immigration, and this is reflected in books as well. Because of this, I feel that people are becoming more understanding and more accepting of each other πŸ™‚

        My parents (though I love them) are quite traditional in their way of thinking, and, to be honest, a bit racist. I don’t blame them because they’ve been living in China for ~35 years and haven’t been exposed to people from different cultures until they came to Canada. When a person thinks a certain way for that many years, it is hard to adjust to a different way of thinking! My parents and I have plenty of debates and discussions about stereotypes and different cultures, and I hope that they might change their minds one day, haha…

        That is great that you’ve traveled alone and it seems to be an exciting and inspiring experience! Traveling is definitely an amazing way to learn about new cultures. I’ve traveled by myself and I find that it is easier to meet new people and be receptive to new ideas that way, rather than traveling with family or friends.

        I love how you describe that there really is no “other”, and I absolutely agree that to become great writers, we have to understand the people around us, even if they do appear to be different. After all, we can’t keep writing about people who are similar to ourselves! I do feel that once we delve deeper, it is possible to relate to everyone.

        Love hearing your ideas! These discussions are fun and I don’t mind your long comments at all, as long as you don’t mind my long comments!

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      • OHHH!!! I feel you. My parents are of the American baby boomer generation, and while a LOT changed during their time, they still see the world in a certain light. It’s really difficult discussing certain topics with them because change seems really hard for them. Still, I try to be open to their POVs and listen. Something about with age comes wisdom or some nonsense. πŸ˜‰

        Oh, totally! When you travel alone, you’re forced to engage with people around you. You don’t have the option of falling back on your native tongue/culture/habits with someone from your home country/society. And people of the country you’re visiting are way more likely to walk up and chat with you. I had so many conversations with strangers when I was abroad. It was awesome! πŸ˜€ Some guy bought me green tea ice cream for taking his picture and chatting him with for a while. Hahaha!

        Hahaha! I mean, people are different. I don’t deny that. I’m not race-blind as many millenials claim. Rather, I don’t treat people differently because of their differences from myself. Honestly, I embrace them (unless they’re jerks about it. haha.) Those people have seen and experienced things I will never have the opportunity to and there is a wealth of knowledge there! The important thing to remember is that they are still people. There is no ‘other,’ but there are differences. Aaaand we’re back to the fine line part. HAHAHAA!

        Aww! I’m so happy you’re open to discussing. I feel like you and I are very like-minded, which is awesome! πŸ˜€ (I also have a hard time finding people to talk with who are as worldly as I am. I traveled a lot at an age when most people stayed at home and saved money. Oops! :p)

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      • I agree that people from older generations think differently, and that once a person is used to a way of thinking, it is hard to change. It makes me wonder, though, when we are older, what would the younger generation think of us!? πŸ˜›

        Seems like you really clicked with that guy who got you the ice cream πŸ˜‰ It is so true that you meet more people travelling alone! I find that when I travel with friends or family, we are all so in our bubble that we aren’t as open to engaging with other people. When I am by myself, I’m more likely to start a conversation with a stranger, and people are also more willing to talk to me. I was never super great at French, but when I was in France and had to speak to the locals in French, I actually felt more fluent in the language. Weird, huh? πŸ™‚

        I think it is really hard to be race-blind, if it is even possible. In psychology class, we talked about how we have biases even if we don’t know it consciously. There are these experiments where people have to make very quick associations between images (for example, they are given an image of a gun, and then will have to click on an image of a white guy or a black guy very quickly), which showed that most people do have bias when it comes to race, even if they stated beforehand that they don’t. It’s scary to think about, isn’t it? I do agree that the important part is to treat people the same way, regardless of race.

        Aww πŸ™‚ Definitely go see the world if that’s what you want to do! Money can always be earned back, but we are only young once πŸ™‚

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      • HAHAHA! That’s what my dad always says to me. “Just wait until you have kids and you’re the one who knows nothing.” πŸ˜‚ That’s too funny!

        BAHAHA! That ‘guy’ was like 40. :p And no, it makes total sense. When you have to rely on yourself for communication, you have to assume you’re good at something because it is the only way to communicate. Though, I didn’t strike up conversations with people in Japan because I literally knew basic Japanese. I couldn’t/can’t carry on a conversation. :p But I DID carry on quite a few conversations in German last time I was in Germany. πŸ™‚

        Yes. I’ve heard the same that there is no true ‘race-blind’ because we’re products of our upbringing and our society. And part of me really wants to take some of these tests to see just how I truly think about other people, you know what I mean? Though, I don’t like that particular example you poised because it assumes that there is no third option: Nobody. You see a gun. It’s a gun. Doesn’t mean someone has to have the gun. You know what I mean? That’s almost forcing someone to associate the gun with someone even if they wouldn’t normally. Am I making any sense?

        Hahahaha! I wish I could travel the world for a living, but I found I’m really bad at explaining my travels and making them sound fun. Travel blogging is not my calling. πŸ˜‚ But I have traveled while I’m young and now is the earning money back part. πŸ˜‰

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      • Haha that’s funny πŸ™‚ That is why I am not eager to have kids yet. I’m still adulting!

        I guess that makes sense that having to rely on yourself for communication, you would be better at it. It’s kind of like being thrown into the deeper end of the pool. You either sink or learn to swim! That’s great that you got to go to Germany. I want to go there someday πŸ™‚

        Actually you can take the test! It is called the Implicit Association Test. I just googled it and there are some tests online. Frankly I am a bit nervous to see what my results would be haha… You bring up a good point in that it is possible that a person doesn’t associate the gun with anyone. Or there could be a random object there, like a cupcake, instead of a person. Someone will have to design a test like that…

        That is why you are a book blogger and not a travel blogger πŸ™‚ some things are meant to be!

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      • Bahahaha! I’m still learning how to adult. :p

        Uh… that pool analogy doesn’t work for my traveling experience. I definitely sank in the pool. Bahahaha! (I can’t swim. πŸ˜‰ ) You should definitely go to Germany! It’s amazing! I’ll be your translator. πŸ˜‰

        Hey! They are online! So I just took one and mine states I have ‘little or no automatic association between Weapons and Harmless Objects with White Americans and Black Americans.’ Hahaha! And I figured out how the test works before it even finished because of how it was formulated. I feel like a genius. :p There a bunch of other IAT tests, too, to test different associations. It’s interesting.

        Hee hee! Yes. I think book blogging is better for me because I get to be critical and rant. Travel blogging is usually only nice things. :p

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      • I finally got around to doing the IAT πŸ™‚ I did the gay-straight people IAT, and am very relieved to find that I have little/no automatic preference between straight and gay people… glad to not be subconsciously a homophobic haha. I will have to try some of the other tests later. They are very interesting πŸ™‚

        I do see what you mean in that travel blogging tend to focus on positive aspects of a trip. I haven’t read a travel blog so far which says to not go to a place haha! For this reason, I think I am more suited to book blogging as well, since I like to critique and rant as well πŸ™‚

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      • Hahaha! I want to try more of them, too, but alas I must do other things. :p But it is nice to know you are neutral. Makes me feel better about myeslf, at least. Hee hee!

        Yay ranting! πŸ˜€ You want to join my anti-hero book guild? :p Apparently I’m the anti-hero calling out publishers from publishing bad books. Hahaha! (One of my commenters came up with this. I think it’s hilarious! And I’d love to actually make a blogging guild: requirements = achieving a certain level of criticism of the books you read. BAHAHAHA!) Okay. Sorry. tangent done. :p

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      • Haha that is hilarious that you are an anti-hero! They are much cooler than traditional heroes anyway πŸ™‚ I’d love to join you in your crusade of bad books! Saving the world, one book at a time πŸ˜‰

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  9. I kinda try to avoid stereotypes in my writing, especially with having like 17 characters all of which being female (aside from 10) but I’m constantly afraid that I’m going to fall victim to some of the worst stereotypes there is (needless to specify any) or that I already have. I honestly don’t know…

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    • I know exactly how you feel. I don’t have as many characters as you do (4, there is one female, one kid, one Asian, and one guy who has depression) and I try really hard to not make them stereotypical, but I am still nervous about it. I find it easier to write about someone with familiar traits as me, for example the Asian guy or the nerdy girl. Thanks for dropping by πŸ™‚

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      • Yeah, it probably would be easier if you can relate in some way to your characters, but to be honest I’ve got a sadistic young girl, a mute, featureless mimic, an arachne who hates her twin sister for no discernible reason, so it’s kinda difficult for me to relate… but I do see what you mean.

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