NaNo Tip No. 18: Breaking with Stereotypes

Yesterday’s post led to Kilks suggesting that I base a NaNo tip on it, which I am now doing.

One of the biggest flaws in beginner writing is a reliance on stereotypes and cliches which produces characters who never come to life because they lack verisimilitude. The female protag faints and is afraid of spiders. The male one is brave and strong. Or vice versa. And that’s all there is to them. They’re thinner than paper.

What do I mean by a stereotype? Let’s look at one that frequently shows up in US teen movies and books: the dumb jock.

Now am I saying that you can’t write about a dumb jock? No, absolutely not. I’m saying that if you’re writing a character who has been written a million times before and been in a million movies you have to work hard to make them transcend being merely “the dumb jock.” You have to turn them into a fully realised character.

My favourite dumb jock is D.J. Schwenk, the protag of Catherine Gilbert Murdock‘s Dairy Queen trilogy. D.J. breaks the stereotype in several ways. For starters she’s a girl and she’s playing American football on a boy’s team. But there’s more to it than that. She’s dumb in that she’s not very good at school work. She doesn’t get why people read books for pleasure. And she’s not particularly smart about her own feelings. Or rather she’s slow at figuring them out. She’s slow at things that aren’t physical. But she gets there eventually. All too often we equate fast thinking with smart thinking and D.J. helps get you to rethink that. Maybe she’s considered “dumb” because our definition of smart isn’t very flexible?

When a character is making you rethink what it means to be “dumb” or “smart” you know you’re in the hands of a wonderful writer.

How does Murdock do it?

It’s all in the details. The tell-tale observations that are so particular to her character. The syntax and rhythm of D.J.’s speech (the books are in first person) sounds like no one but D.J. Schwenk. Here’s the opening of the third book in the trilogy, Front and Center:

Here are ten words I never thought I’d be saying . . . Well, okay, sure. I say these words all the time. It’s not like school and good and to are the kind of words you can avoid even if you wanted to. It’s just that I’ve never said them in this particular order. Not that I can remember, anyway. But what do you know, there they were inside my head, like a little thing you’d say to get yourself psyched: It sure feels good to be going back to school.

It feels like D.J. is talking directly to us. We get to see her thought patterns, which are halting, even clumsy, she’s not comfortable with words, which is something we usually associate with being smart.

It’s very intimate to be allowed such close access to someone else’s thoughts. It’s a great way to get your audience on side with your character. We get to know them better than anyone else in the book does. And when we know a character that well it’s impossible for them to remain a stereotype.

So there you have it: if you get inside your character’s head, really get to understand them, then they cease to be a cliche. It doesn’t matter if they started as the perky cheerleader, or the loner goth kid who reads too much, or the bully with problems at home they will become themselves: real and believable.

Good luck with it!


  1. Kaia on #

    I love D.J. so much. SO SO MUCH. I love her speech patterns and her way of thinking, and all that comes with it. I owe my friend who handed me Dairy Queen and told me to read it oh so much!

    Can’t wait until I can afford to buy the other two! If they’re both out, that is. But you make it sound like they are!

  2. Kristan on #

    Wow those books / that character sounds awesome! Consider me sold. (No, seriously, you sold me on them.)

    My writing prof often used to say that some of the best characters were stereotypes… with something that made them different. I think that’s very similar to what you’re saying here. Stereotypes are good in a way, because they are shortcuts: you say “dumb jock,” and I immediately get a sense of that character. But you say “dumb girl jock” and I immediately get intrigued. It’s both familiar and unique enough.

    Stereotypes can be good shortcuts for writers too. We just have to be sure we do that extra bit of work to, as you said, “make them transcend.” 🙂

  3. kristin cashore on #

    I’m another adoring D.J. fan. And another book I love for its presentation of a character who makes you think twice about our inflexible definition of the words “smart” and “dumb”: Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork. Marcelo isn’t a jock, but he certainly is perceived as slow/stupid, and wow, is he ever not! He’s such a rich, insightful, smart person.

  4. Justine on #

    Kaia: They are most defnitely out. The Off Season is even in paperback. And the third and final book pub’d in September.

    Kristan: You won’t be sorry.

    Kristin: I guessed as much given your blurb on the front cover of Front and Center. Murdock’s a wonderful writer, isn’t she?

  5. rockinlibrarian on #

    Thanks for such a positive spin on this advice! Usually you just see “don’t write stereotypes/cliches/archetypes/orphan-apprentice-and-headstrong-princess-go-on-a-quest-in-a-fairy-tale-kingdom” (that last is one I have in my W-notveryin-P pile), and then they go on and describe certain character types that make you say “but hey, I LOVE so-and-so, who is exactly that sort of character!” (Obi-Wan Kenobi is my hero even if he IS a Wise Old Mentor Figure). I love your advice to work to make type characters transcend their stereotypes. The types give us some grounding and familiarity– the little personal details give us people to care about.

  6. Justine on #

    Rockinlibrarian: Well, pretty much every character is a stereotype of one sort if you strip them down to essentials. Nothing’s new since Homer and all that. The trick is to let them live outside the recognisable type.

  7. Ellen on #

    I love D.J.! But my favorite character who’s perceived as slow has to be Max, the mighty half of Freak the Mighty. Everybody (including himself) dismisses him as stupid, but as you read you realize there’s a lot more to his character beneath the “dumb strong guy” exterior.

  8. imelda on #

    I’m actually struggling to make coherent characters! I’ve been thinking that maybe what I need is to simplify and make everyone a “type.” But maybe there’s a difference between stereotypes and archetypes?

  9. Zeborah on #

    I think if you’re struggling to get a character to cohere it can help to think about what their core defining features are, which might be “dumb jock”. The thing is that you can’t stop there and have them be nothing *but* a dumb jock – because there are thousands of “dumb jocks” in the world: what makes yours different from the rest of them? And that’s where the details come in.

    How you get the details will depend on how you write – for some it might be easiest to just let it come out as you’re writing the story, others might need to plan in advance. I mostly let it happen as I write, until/unless I get stuck. Then I think about their interactions with other characters and how that might have affected their character; or I think about things they did in those interactions and what aspect of their character might have informed that. Once I’ve had one idea I have to stop and get back to writing or I could get really carried away but mileage varies there too.

  10. Skaldi on #

    Imelda, yes there is a difference.

    An archetype (according to Jung) is a part of the collective unconscious. It defines the role of a character in a story (since this is how we’re talking about it). Now this is character in the very generalist of senses. It is character without content, context or definition. Archetypes are thought to exist regardless of how we view or define the world around ourselves.

    A stereotype is a cliched character. This is character with content, context and definition, but this is usually of the type that’s seen far too often. Usually they are underdeveloped. Stereotypes are reliant upon society and culture, usually a specific one.

  11. Summer on #

    I remember reading the ‘list of SF/Fantasy cliches to avoid’ or whatever Holly Black linked to on her website-and it covered just about anything you can do with a charecter/situation. I much prefer this-I have NO trouble with characters whatsoever, but I have a few that I worried people might think are sterotypes-the smart, socially awkward Chinese guy, the strong Amazon, the prickly, rude German guy,the Orphaned hero-but now I’ve realized that my characters are so much more than their surface. Thank you Justine!
    Oh and I just finished MoM! Loved it! Magic Lessons is up next!

  12. Shveta Thakrar on #

    And I get to hear Catherine read from Front and Center tonight! Whee!

    Everyone who hasn’t read her Dairy Queen books yet, get to it. Seriously. Everything Justine has said is so true.

  13. wandering-dreamer on #

    Lol, I just found those books at my library and the copy of Front and Center is on my bed now (least it should but, if it’s not this will be fun trying to to find it….) and I thought that DJ was pretty well portrayed but had a few issues with the book. No biggie though.
    And I’m fairly sure my character isn’t a stereotype since I do get in her head, have her explain herself and the world, she feels scared, worried, um, happy I guess at points, she feels real to me. I guess if you can get into a real argument with your character over something then they are no longer a stereotype.

  14. imelda on #

    Thanks for the responses, guys. I really appreciate them. 🙂

  15. Philip on #

    One of the characters in my book is the girlfriend of the protag, and because she’s from Japan I’ve been conscious from the beginning that when I finally bring her into the story I have to avoid making her submissive or passive in any way. Because while that’s the standard in a lot of American works, especially action movies (as you already pointed out), there’s also the stereotype of the meek Japanese wife. So I’ve got two sets of stereotypes to avoid.

    But subversions are often as cliched as as the original tropes themselves, so I can’t just make her outspoken or independent and call that a character either. I’m currently stuck on just how to make her unique, and that’s one of the things gnawing at the back of my head.


    I don’t know if you take requests for tips or answer out-of-the-blue questions, but one problem I’m having right now is maintaining my interest on this one project. It’s not that I’m having doubts about it (if anything my pendulum is swinging the other way, towards egotism and self-delusion). But with work and other things I have a limited amount of free time each day and having to devote so much of it to this one thing to keep my daily word count met at the expense of other things I like to spend time on is making it hard to summon much enthusiasm. Especially when I get stuck on a single scene for a couple days.

    Do you ever have this problem? Any tips on combatting it?

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