Types and Stereotypes

I have been thinking lately of types and stereotypes. When I write, I basically use the same people or the same kinds of people over and over. This is because what interests me is not the itty-bitty idiosyncratic nature of character but rather how human nature plays itself out in particular situations. I suppose this is why I write fantasy and science-fiction.

I tell myself that I'm just doing what Shakespeare did. Yes, well, eh hem, let's take it as read that I'm not exactly in the same class. But I think the argument that Shakespeare created more type-oriented than character-oriented people is a legitimate argument. Granted, Hamlet is a fully realized character with his own bundle of idiosyncrises but at some point, the character hits the type and becomes universal.

(I will say right now that it is likely that geniuses, i.e. really, really good writers can do both: create complex characters and types simultaneously.)

My reference to Shakespeare as a defense is due to the oft touted idea that all good writing is character-driven (which is probably true) and that all good characters are complex characters (which I think less true). Complex characters have names and backgrounds and hobbies and tics. If they are romance characters, they have hair and eye color, not to mention a complete wardrobe. If they are angsty/"realistic" characters, they have dark pasts and foibles and unrelenting grief.

I'm probably going to talk myself into a hole on this one since I really admire writers like C.J. Cherryh who, particularly in The Foreigner series, create emotionally real and complex characters.

But let's step back from the whole issue for a sec. Because I think that (1) good writing can rely on types; and (2) types and stereotypes are not the same.

Tolkien relied on types. Agatha Christie relied on types (and she didn't apologize for it). I mentioned earlier that Shakespeare relied on types. For some of her funniest passages, Sayers relied on types (I think Sayers is a very misunderstood writer; she is much more humorous than she is given credit for).

Types are not the same as stereotypes. I've been struggling over the difference for awhile now. It's one of those porno things: "I can't define it but I know it when I see it." I've decided that the difference is the universal quality. Types can move between cultures. Miss Marple is very English, but her type is still recognizable in her descendents, Mme Ramotswe and Mrs. Pollifax.

A stereotype, on the other hand, is a cliche specific to time and place. Ngaio Marsh claimed she was using characters (unlike Christie), not types in her mysteries when actually she was using stereotypes. Don't get me wrong--I enjoy Marsh, but I don't think her characters are transferable beyond a very specific time and place. Alleyn belongs specifically to his upperclass English milieu and there is little of him that survives beyond it. He is a collection of time/place-based cliches: the reticient, fastidious, upperclass British detective working amongst worshipping subordinates in the 1940s to 1950s.

Sayers used many of these same cliches, but then she freaked out the mystery writers of her day by giving Wimsey character. (Oddly enough, I think that Tey, like Sayers, created a fully realized character in her detective; the difference between Grant, Tey's detective, and Wimsey, Sayers' detective, is that Grant is very sparsely detailed. But he is neither a cliche or a type.)

To go on to fantasy/science-fiction, in the creation of Frodo, Tolkien created a type. As did Lucas with Luke and Hans in Star Wars. As did Whedon in Buffy (actually, there you see a deliberate reversal or play on types). But the dramatis personae of Eragon, which I mildly enjoyed, strike me as stereotypes. As did the roles in Titanic, who struck me as "fantasy" stereotypes in the nastier sense of the word.

Not that stereotypes are always ineffective. In the Monk episode "Employee of the Month," almost all of the parts are stereotypes: the inept stock boys, the weedy manager, the disgruntled retail worker. The stereotypes are so accurate, so right-on, they are hilarious, but they are hilarious within a very specific time, culture, and place. A type, like Monk himself, has more universal qualities. Monk IS the Sherlock Holmes of his time and place and therefore, carries within him the universal qualities that made Sherlock Holmes also universal.

No real conclusions here, just a healthy respect for the use of the type. Not all figures in a drama have to be deep and personal and idiosyncratic to work. There's place for types and even, within a short life-span, stereotypes in fiction and television and movie scripts.