I am fascinated by etymology and I enjoy juggling with words but, as a writer, I try not to create blatant stereotypes in my characters. The word stereotype comes from the 1798 French adjective, stéréotype, which is a “method of printing from a plate.” It has come to mean a set idea that people have about what someone or something is like, especially an idea that is wrong, or in some way a mischaracterisation or an unfair generalisation.
It is easier to add depth and layers to a major character than a minor one: in my novel ‘Older, Wiser, Wilder,’ I gave myself 92,000 words to develop the central character of Evelyn. Her daughter-in-law, Maura, begins as a stereotype but I took trouble to create empathy for her and to focus on her motivation as I wrote.
However, it is more of a challenge with characters who appear only briefly. In my novel, Peggy and Geoff, whom Evelyn meets momentarily in Dax, with whom she shares a bottle of wine and who are the recipients of her mischief when Peggy mistakenly thinks Evelyn’s accent is Scottish, are as close to stereotypes as I want to come. I considered how I wrote them them for a long time: I have met Peggys and Geoffs, people whose middle-class idiosyncrasy is defined by their ability to analyse the bouquet of wine in depth and who carry their own prejudices and proclaim definitions of everything they see, measured against how they wish to see themselves. And, of course, Peggy and Geoff are there for humour and light relief: they are the foil for Evelyn’s honesty as I demonstrate her capacity to be a little iconoclastic. But I try to be fair with my characters, never abusing them or mocking them too harshly, and I always try to avoid harmful stereotypes.
Perhaps Paul Murray had similar thoughts, as he was writing his book, ‘The Mark and the Void’. I wonder if he considered the impact on the reader of creating stereotypes in many of his characters. Being of Irish descent on my mother’s side, I wasn’t sure how to take the tirade against the Irish on Page 112/113:
‘blanched, pocked, pitted, sleep-deprived….drunken speeches, drunken fights, drunken weddings, drunken sex…their punchbag history, their bankrupt state, their inveterate difference.’
I know we are hearing this onslaught through the persona of rich, feckless, French Claude (!) and I won’t deny that I have spent time with lovely relatives who have shared a bit of a drink and indulged in a bit of a falling out, but I puzzle over whether this is a damning evocation of a race for humour’s sake, and I also wonder how it is received by readers. Is it just funny, which is fine, or seen as the mad rant of Claude, which is probably fine, or would anyone out there actually consider it a valid view which supports their own narrow judgement?
Murray’s minor character Igor is ‘a great hulking creature, almost seven foot tall, with a sloping forehead, and brawny knotted forearms that extend from an ill fitting nylon shirt.’ (p 76). This is a vivid description of someone who is both funny and fundamental to the narrative: Murray makes us quickly suspicious of Igor’s assumed role and of his motives: he is probably going to reveal himself as a thug and a crook. Here we have a stereotype of Russian males, seen often in the movies.
I enjoyed Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch,’ especially for the character of Boris. A brilliant contrast to the main protagonist, Theo, and a terrible influence, Boris is big-hearted, morally suspect, always loyal and a source of great humour. His desperate and ill-fated love for Kotku, his drug-fueled binges, his battles and his bad relationship with his father make him a well-drawn character against whom we measure Theo’s development and his failures, and whom we love for the comedy and mayhem he creates and for the poignant truth of his tough and vulnerable lifestyle. Boris is a secondary character and he is Ukrainian, but he is not a stereotype. I always prefered him to Theo and as I read the book, I found myself perpetually waiting for the next episode with Boris.
I recommend that you read Simon Wroe’s novel, ‘Chop Chop’ – it’s really entertaining and also quite poignant. All characters have a deliberate element of the stereotype in their names and their initial composition, and it is a completely valid technique, as they are chefs working in a restaurant kitchen, so their knowledge of each other is limited to their hierarchical job status and ‘professional’ rapport throughout the daily mayhem of creating fabulous food. The novel’s purpose is humour, parody, riot and a tale of raucous behaviour, but the story works so well because all characters begin simply and are developed cleverly. Monocle, the protagonist, is a lowly sous-chef forced to take the job because he needs money and can find nothing else to do with his English degree. Racist Dave and Bob the Chef become much more than simple labels as their lives unfold and again it is the Russian Ramilov, deeply funny and deeply flawed, ‘a dyed-in-the-wool psycho, a universal soldier,’ who steals the show for me.
The novel is tightly structured and the characters are developed so well that there is depth and compassion in them as well as humour. We like Monocle: despite his highbrow diction, he is the lowest of the low in the kitchen, with a lot to learn about life from the dysfunctional band of chefs who create superb food and teach him both their trade and their philosophies. It is a hilarious yet tender story, combining the ecstasies of haute cuisine with the most degenerate human behaviour and Ramilov is both filthy and heroic. It is a dark, brutal, savage and iconoclastic story and, for me, the ending and Ramilov’s triumphant villany make the book a page-turner. ‘Chop Chop’ is a great example of how a book can begin with characters which are pure stereotypes of class and race with the intention of making a hilarious narrative and then, due to the skill and the empathic writing, create a strong and plausible story in which characters are drawn with affection and detail.
As a writer, I read as widely I can, not just to immerse myself in creative ideas and good narratives, but also to switch on the analytical bit of my brain and see what type of writing works for me and why, and what might work for a reader and how other successful authors ply their craft. In my first novel humour, empathy and the bittersweet mix of laughter and loss have been a focus for me and I have learned a lot from many other great writers such as Tartt, Wroe and Murray.
My second novel is in the research stage and is more likely to be a shocker than a side-splitting rocker, so I will have many more books to read and to blog about throughout the year. Watch this space.