One of the things that I mentioned in the previous discussion I had on the Ten Year Nap was how I was bothered by stereotyping. I had found the one Asian American character in the book a stereotype of all things most people would associate with being Asian. Nerdy, good at math, no sense of humor, parent with bad accent, etc. But I have to wonder if I am not guilty of stereotyping myself.
In my last manuscript, I had a character who was a housekeeper in the Washington, DC area named Maria who was a lovely, motherly woman from El Salvadore. During my critique, my writing partner told me that it was a stereotype. I was puzzled by this because in no way did I think that. But in the Washington, DC area, a large portion of the Hispanic community is from El Salvadore and statistically they make up a large pool of the number of domestic service workers in the area. Without thinking, I had perpetrated a stereotype in my book. I was aghast. Was this really stereotyping? After all, my intent was not to state or judge that all El Salvadoreans are domestic help. The lovely ladies of my housecleaning service company are all from El Salvadore. Clearly they had influenced me when I was writing. But what was different from this characterization and the one about Asians that had me all riled up? Not a lot.
This reminds me of a conversation I once had with a colleague. She was in accounting, I was in legal. She was running numbers for financial statements we were working on together. She asked me to check over her calculations of a complicated formula. I stared at her blankly. "Not very Asian are you?" she asked somewhat snidely. "What the hell do you mean by that?" I asked her. "Well, you aren't good at math. That's kind of weird for you guys," she said. "It's because I don't eat enough dog and cat meat in my diet that I am not good at math," I replied straightfaced. For a long moment, it looked like she really believed me.
Hey, I am not the type to fight my heritage. I am proud of it. We have a term for those who actively dislike their heritage and try to pretend they are something they are not. Banana, twinkie. That is not me. So to say I am not very Asian because I am not good at math makes me laugh. I say, yeah, I am not very like that stupid Asian stereotype you have. Good! I won't dazzle you with an amazing display of tae kwon do either, but guess what? I can kick your ass up and down the street if you'd like!
But how can we completely avoid stereotypes? What makes characters stand out above and beyond a stereotype? And what about accuracy? If I am doing a novel with an owner of a fruit and vegetable store/salad bar in New York city, how could he or she not be Korean? The Koreans invented the concept and pretty much took over that niche of business. But a stereotype is bad whether it is positive or negative, right? Yet in writing, how can we avoid stereotyping anyone? In part, I believe that only by the true development of the character can you avoid the pitfalls of stereotyping. For you can draw a nerdy Asian math geek but avoid the stereotype by drawing a fully fleshed and realized character that have different quirks that makes them unique. Since this is not easy, we end up with characterizations that we consider stereotypical, especially when it comes to secondary characters.
So I was thinking how best can I avoid a stereotype that might be troublesome to others. We can't always fully flesh out our secondary and minor characters, but I think it is important for all writers to be aware of the type of judging and wholesale generalizations that we may unintentionally make. Keep it in mind. We can't always stop ourselves from stereotyping, but by being aware that we might be doing it, it will open our eyes to how to change the stereotype and let a character be more than a generalized lumping of impersonal oversimplified set of traits. I would love to hear more thoughts on this so please share!