Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Stereotypically Me

Today, I welcome Holli Castillo to Terry's Place. Holli is a Louisiana Appellate Public Defender and a former New Orleans Prosecutor. She has written two award winning novels, Gumbo Justice and Jambalaya Justice, and is currently working on the third in her Crescent City Mystery Series, Chocolate City Justice.

And while Holli is hosting Terry's Place for me, it's my day at The Blood-Red Pencil, where the theme is "love" and my topic is "Men Aren't Women With Chest Hair."

I have three things on my mind today. The first is that today is Mardi Gras, and once again I am spending it inside of my house, away from the crazy crowds, loud bands, and elaborate floats that most locals have come to cherish. How they can overlook the occasional nudity, fist fights and gunshots I’m not quite sure. Not that I’m the Grinch who Stole Carnival, but as middle age approaches I’m a lot more comfortable watching the revelry on my TV from the comfort of my sofa, with a cup of coffee and my pets– a sweet dog and a deaf cat– nuzzled against me.

But sitting here watching the typical Mardi Gras day on TV brings to mind two other things, cliches and settings, and what can happen when you juxtapose the two.

One thing I learned in writing classes in college is that stereotypes and cliches are bad. It was drilled into nearly every lesson. (Hollywood has obviously not taken Fiction Writing One from Professor Stelly, because they keep insisting on putting really bad Mardi Gras scenes in nearly every movie set in New Orleans.) The thing about stereotypes, though, is that the only reason they are stereotypes in the first place is because most of them are based in truth.

Here’s an easy one from New Orleans, since it’s Mardi Gras and all–the teenage drug dealer. You know him. He has a certain talk, a certain walk. He has gold teeth and little braids. He holds a gun sideways. He wears a plain t-shirt, jeans pulled so low his boxers show, and ultra-expensive tennis shoes. He has a few odd tattoos in strange places, things like the name of his child intertwined with a snake, right next to a tattoo of the name of a friend who was shot and killed. Above that, his mom’s name.

But while he may be a stereotype, he’s also very real, on many street corners in the city, in mostly bad neighborhoods. He’s also very scary. And I was always led to believe I can’t write about him exactly as he is, because he’s a cliche, and cliches are always bad.

Or are they? If he’s a part of the scenery, something the character sees while riding the bus or driving down the street, the stereotype or cliche is probably fine as an element of the setting. My cliche of a young man can help establish the type of neighborhood my characters are in, or even set the mood if he speaks to my character in passing. Is my drug dealer still a stereotype? Probably. Does it matter? Probably not.

Cliches come in different sexes, sizes, and professions. The doughnut eating cop. The hooker with a heart of gold. The Cat Lady. Just because these people really do exist and tend to be thought of as stereotypes doesn’t mean we can’t effectively write about them, cliche and all.

If my character is going to have more of a role than being part of the setting, tone, or mood, I’m going to work really hard making sure he has a distinct personality, some quirks or traits that distinguish him from others just like him, and make sure he’s a fleshed-out, real human being and not just a stereotype.

But if he’s there to serve another purpose, and he serves his purpose well, such as establishing setting, mood, tone, or upping the tension, writing him as a cliche can actually help the story.

Sometimes, knowing when and how to break the rules is just as important as knowing the rules in the first place.

For more information about Holli, visit her website at www.hollicastillo.com, or visit her on Facebook; Gumbo Justice and Jambalaya Justice, by Oak Tree Press, can be purchased on Amazon in paper version or at www.gumbojustice.net

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Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I think stereotypes and stock characters definitely have a place in stories. The readers "get" them and they can be used to quickly set up a scene. Thanks for the post!

Holli said...

Elizabeth, thanks for the comment. I completely agree that they can help the writer and the reader move along faster, which also means the writer doesn't end up wasting words setting up background.

Mike Orenduff said...

Good observations, Holli. As you point out, stereotypes are based in truth. Good fiction like yours doesn't avoid them, but it does use them well.

Holli said...

Thanks, Mike. I used to try to cut cliched characters out, or add traits that made minor characters less stock, but then I figured out some people only show the cliche side of themselves. I see that in my clients a lot, what they show in the courtroom as opposed to the other sides of themselves I see in real life, outside the courtroom. No one is just good or bad, but sometimes that's all we see of them at a particular time.

Rose from North LA said...

I share your view of stereotypes and cliches. Although we're taught to limit them, most great works include them in the way you suggested, as characters of distinction. Great article :) Keep the good writing and thoughts on it coming.
~ Rose

WS Gager said...

Some day I'm going to get to Mardi Gras and drag you off the couch or more likely away from your computer to show me the real deal -- no stereotypes! For characters, I usually start with a stereotypically and then give it several twists and turns to make them more three dimensional.
Great post Holli!
W.S. Gager on Writing

Holli said...

Rose, maybe the warnings in English class are to keep writers from using too many cliches, although I think most writers try to keep characters as fresh as possible, so the warnings may be wasted on most of us.

Wendy- I just told Billie today that if she comes to town for Mardi Gras, I'll make it the year I hit the parades. Ditto for you!

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

As always, Holli, a great post. You've given us something to think about besides Mardi Gras. Are you coming to PSWA this year?


Monti said...

Well, I carried on the stereotype for Mardi Gras today by wearing about seven of the bright gaudy necklaces to school. Guess it didn't look too unusual for me because not a single person commented on them. Maybe I sort of like stereotypes!?

Thanks for the words of wisdom!

Mary Montague Sikes

Holli said...

Marilyn, thanks! It seems there's always something to write about when it comes to writing. I am tentatively planning for PSWA, but there is a chance my doctor may schedule me to get the hardware removed from my ankle around the same time, so I'm kind of waiting to see what happens before I register or book anything.

Monti, as long as you didn't start off your day with a Dixie beer or a shot of (fill in the blank), you're probably not in danger of being considered a Mardi Gras stereotype, at least not down here!

Maryann Miller said...

Good suggestion about using a stock character to set a scene. Sometimes it is fun to even give them a quirk to set them apart from all the others just like them.

Kathy Bennett said...

Hi Holli;

As a retired cop who loved donuts before I became a cop, I say: I resemble that remark!

But I was probably one of the few cops (when I was a cop) who didn't drink coffee!

Holli said...

Maryann, I often like to give my stock characters something that makes them stand out, even if it isn't necessarily a quirk, such as really bad teeth, or a rotten smell, or something that makes them still a stereotype, but also makes them memorable.

Kathy, most of the cops I knew/know don't care if people think they are stereotypes for eating donuts either. Especially if it's a Krispy Kreme, which gives them a 50% off discount. Most of them do drink coffee, though. I can't pass up a good donut (or six) myself.

Marja said...

Great post, Holli, and you said it so well. Not all of the advice we receive works for us, so like you said, we have to figure out what's best in our books.

Patricia Gligor said...

Good point, Holli. First, you need to know the rules and then, you need to know when and how to break them.