Sunday, October 09, 2005

Lessons I have learnt about writing novels - Avoiding Stereotypes

I wanted to write about this because it is one area that has caused me great trouble and yet is something which people don’t often talk about when they talk about writing books. The use of a stereotype is, to me, a mortal sin of literature. This is for three reasons.

The first is a moral reason. If my main ambition in life was to change the world for the better, I would have learnt to use a .338 Lapua Magnum, but I would much rather write. And as you have probably gathered from this blog, I am hardly a convincing polemicist. So the changing the world bit has to be subtle. Very subtle.

I am an egalitarian sort and passionate about the idea that in order to fulfil oneself, one must take responsibility for the creation and maintenance of a situation where others can fulfil themselves as they see fit. One obstacle to self-fulfilment is social prejudice and naturally stereotypes contribute to this.

It may seem obvious, but the stereotypes which do the most harm are probably ones that seem either harmless or even sympathetic in the eyes of those who perpetuate them. For example, having rejected the old stereotypes about them all being sinister, predatory or even paedophilic, modern authors and film-makers don’t seem the harm in repeatedly having Gay male comic characters*. To a man they are vain and flamboyant, hilariously bitchy, shallow and promiscuous but bizarrely sensitive when their straight female friends are in trouble. Black people in American films suffered a similar fate (minus the empathy) that they’re only just getting over.

Similarly, physically disabled** people are very rarely presented as anything sinister (except as the occasional comic book villain). But it is not exactly helpful when every other portrayal is either some heart-warming tale of triumph over adversity or a straight forward tragedy. Sympathy and admiration are all very nice, but not necessarily conducive to these minority groups being regarded with respect and treated as equal.

The second objection to the use of stereotypes is simply that real life is not like that. For example I have only ever met one Gay man with truly horrendous taste in music***. The first time I listened to Pink Flyod’s The Wall, lying on the floor of my sister’s student digs, this rock masterpiece was interspersed with such gems as Brown Girl In The Rain, Mamma Mia and Lady Marmalade courtesy of her young housemate. Talk about crimes against humanity…

Okay, just a little pin-prick,
They’ll be no more
Giuchie giuchie, ya ya, da da
But you may feel a little sick.

However, sexuality does not actually dictate anything more than... well, who you might want to go to bed with. Look at the three most significant homosexuals in history: Leonardo da Vinci, Oscar Wilde, Alan Turing. Compare to the stereotype. Compare these men to each other. Picture them doing the YMCA dance. See the problem?

The third reason is artistic integrity. Stereotypes about minority, ethnic or religious groups are often applied when an author does not know enough about what they are talking about. They are often accepted by an audience that doesn’t know what they are reading about. But is that as high as you wish to aim?

Stories that accept stereotypes wholeheartedly are usually vaguely comic. Genres of fiction often described as “Lad Lit” or “Chick Lit” about single people in their thirties, play on the ideas of men and women being members of different species; straight women all obsessed with dieting, shoes and marriage, straight men obsessed with sport, competitive drinking and sport-sex – although these are basically romances so somehow these seemingly incompatible preoccupations shift and warp such that everyone can live happily ever after. Gay men are these exotic comedic creatures described above and such authors usually adopt Queen Victoria’s take on lesbianism. In my opinion, very few of them pull this kind of thing off because anyone who convincingly complies to these stereotypes is a very irritating character and since such books rarely conclude in a blood bath, they leave one unsatisfied.

So what can we do about it? If you think about books and films which turn a stereotype completely on its head, the consequences are almost always funny. Most non-Curtis British film comedies work in this way; the former steel workers who become male-strippers (The Full Monty), a middle-aged, middle-class widow who becomes a drug-dealer (Saving Grace), the son of a miner who becomes a ballet dancer (Billy Elliot) etc. In fact, this sort of thing has been done so often now that I personally find it all a bit tedious and often quite patronising towards certain groups (chiefly all working class people and middle-aged women), but it seems to be a popular formula.

Of course there is a difference between describing a typical situation and making a caricature. For example, many corner-shops in the UK are run by Pakistani families. Statistically, most Pakistanis are Muslim. Most corner-shops are open very long hours, often seven days a week and therefore anybody running one has to have a pretty firmly entrenched work ethic. Thus, most of us don’t have to look very far around us to find a hard-working Pakistani Muslim shopkeeper. Real life is like that. Where we have to be careful is with what other attributes we might give such a person.

Personally, I am aware that I can be pig-headed on this sort of issue. When I first started on the book I heard a discussion on Open Book on Radio 4 which discussed an American phenomenon called Christian Romance. All this pappy Mills & Boon stuff, except where the heroine finds God as well as romantic love. The folks discussing this concluded that this would never work in Britain because it was fundamentally impossible to make a Church of England vicar look sexy… and I think it was the words fundamentally impossible that irritated me. I am not a member of the God Squad and I don’t have a thing for men in dresses, but I turned my romantic hero into a C of E curate and then before I realised what a stupid stupid idea that was (rather like the one about him being a crip) it became inextricably entwined in the plot. Doh!

At the end of the day, I suppose the secret lies in putting yourself deep inside the characters. Folks talk about authors having Godlike control over all events, as if they are playing with the characters like dolls. But I believe that in order to represent fictional characters realistically you have to step inside them and see how it feels. That way you know it’s all authentic, because you are authentic. There is nothing autobiographical about my book and yet every character represents a part of myself even though they are, I hope, a fairly diverse bunch. I suppose I must be immensely arrogant to imagine I have the capacity to do pull this off, but I have already suggested that writing books is insane and this is only one small aspect.

* I’m not objecting to ‘camp comedy’ or comedy as part of Gay Culture. Just the idea that homosexuality is in itself a joke.

** I talk about ‘physically disabled people’ because folks with learning difficulties and mental ill health are still often treated in a fairly appalling way in mainstream film and literature.

*** I did actually agree to marry the guy who ruined The Wall as his name was O’Kelly, thus our double-barrelled surname would have been the fantastic Kelly-O’Kelly. The other Gay man with whom I considered marriage was a chap of Egyptian origin and had the surname of Deb. So I would have been Deborah Deb. How cool is that? I was only sixteen...

Bloody hell. Did anybody read down this far? Sorry folks for the longest blog-entry in history of rambling.


Anonymous said...

I read down this far.

I loved it. All of it.

I wish I could say something more profound at this stage, but it's Sunday afternoon and I don't do profound on Sunday afternoons as it's against my religion.



Loved it.


marmiteboy said...

Maybe you could have married Mr Deb then divorced him and then married Mr O'Kelly then you could have been Deborah Deb-Kelly-O'Kelly.

Sorry it's me pills...;-)

Lady Bracknell said...

Lady Bracknell shares many friends with Dorothy. Some of whom are not in the slightest bit camp. (Although there is nothing her ladyship enjoys more than drinks out with the most theatrical of screaming queens. It may be that her literary genesis is coming to the fore..)

A great many of the disabled people Lady Bracknell has encountered professionally are so crashingly dull that they could be neither brave nor tragic if their very lives depended on it.

Without exception, all of the most interesting persons of her ladyship's acquaintance are drawn from minority groups in society. But it would be a grave error to assume - as so many screen writers seem to have done - that everyone from those minority groups has a fascinating personality.

Anonymous said...

Hi Goldfish, once again brilliant stuff.

I know I could not write a book, but I know I can design a cover!


The Goldfish said...

Marmite - I must confess I thought the same myself, but thought it was enough to confess to the idea of marrying just one of the young men in question for his name. :-)

Mentalasafork - Another great work of art. But was the book any good?