Clichés and Stereotypes Are Your Friends
There are lots of writers who will try to tell you clichés and stereotypes are a bad thing. We are often told we should avoid writing our characters so they fit a particular mould, on the grounds that it’ll only make your writing clunky or stilted. To that, I say nonsense.
While it may be true that a story which relies too much on using all-too-familiar archetypes can grate if done heavy-handedly, I’m of the view that an awareness of stereotypes can actually enrich your writing for the better. In actuality, both clichés and stereotypes are your friends. Here’s why:
The very reason stereotypes exist in the first place is because the tide of majority opinion tends to carry your canoe in a particular direction—you can try to moor your boat on the riverbank, or fool yourself into thinking you can paddle in the opposite direction, but the current will always tend to carry you that way.
The same unavoidable thing can be said of clichés, as dire and depressing some of them may be. Human beings have a tendency to repeat expressions ad infinitum over hundreds of years, pigeonholing people’s personality types, finding common threads of observation about human behaviour or lifestyles which some might feel unify us as individuals when we express them.
I feel we owe it to ourselves as writers to see these clichés and stereotypes for exactly what they are—mere snapshots capturing the way people assume we interact, or how some people live their lives. For writers to avoid them entirely would be dishonest. I reject the idea that it is lazy for a writer to see the value in them.
I’m not saying you should try and shoehorn every hackneyed coin of phrase into your story. All I’m saying is: don’t jettison clichés and stereotypes from your minds while you’re in the process of writing—they are merely signposts which readers should easily be able to identify with, or at least recognise. Only by accepting the clichés and stereotypes for what they are from the offset can you do something truly original with them. When redrafting, you can flip them upside down; subvert them; hint at them; toy with them; flout them; defy them; or even parody them.
You are free to do all of this, of course, but only if you accept they exist in the first place. Very often, writers are told they should avoid creating stereotypical characters like the plague, as if the road to bad writing is paved with using too many clichéd lines of dialogue or predictable plot devices. Which is true, to some extent, but that shouldn’t necessarily hold you back, especially when creating your first draft.
Maybe some writers are fearful of peddling stereotypes; for example, afraid some may slap the ‘bigot’ label on you, or tar you with the brush of prejudice, even if your intentions might merely be to capture a particularly stereotypical aspect of the world as people tend to see it. This may well depend on your literary genre of choice, but if you’re compelled to infuse a bit of social observation into your work (as I am) it’s hard not to avoid grabbing the bull of stereotypical preconceptions and old-fashioned clichés by the horns.
I do this if only to mess with my audience, doing so in an ironic fashion, so there’s no reason why it won’t be possible in other areas of storytelling. The damsel in distress could be so apathetic that she barely even knows what it means not to be distressed. The knight could be so obsessed with polishing his shining armour that the princess he’s trying to save loses patience with him. And so on.
My point is that as much as people try to deny it, clichés and stereotypes do exist for a reason. As hard as if may be for some to accept, the reason is… they give people comfort, perhaps wrongly in some cases (especially if they reinforce prejudices), but it’s still a comfort nonetheless. As a writer, that feeling of comfort your reader shares with others opens up a great opportunity to exploit it.
By all means, pounce upon that weakness to attack why those clichés and stereotypes exist in the first place; allow your stories to peel back layers and explore how justified our assumptions of others may be (or not); or use your characters to tell the reader why, in many cases, such attitudes should be rejected. It’s worth saying, however, that you won’t be able to do any of this in your writing if you fail to address the existence of those clichés and stereotypes to start with. You can’t ignore them. That’s why they’re so important.
But be careful. It’s easy to get carried away. In the wrong hands, a story chock-full with 2D characters ticking the boxes of lazy gender stereotypes—or using banal yawn-inducing platitudes—will always be the mark of a bad writer, there’s no denying that.
But there’s no need to fear the use of clichés and stereotypes—they are not your enemies. Once you accept they are your friends, you can then start to shape your writing from what the world thinks it should be, into a more accurate depiction of how you see it, and that’s where the real hard work begins.
© 2016 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.