5 Surprisingly Simple Ways To Subvert Stereotypes In Stories


Recently I started working on an outline for a story about a detective. He is young, idealistic, ambitious. He is partnered with a new copy — who is older, cynical, resigned. I know what you’re thinking. ‘Isn’t that like every typical cop story?’ You wouldn’t be wrong.

It’s very easy to go with a stereotypical storyline or character — it’s easier and it feels familiar. But it’s probably what will see your novel in the slush pile. Complacency is deadly. Another writer asked me to read a scene she wrote. I had to point out it was the typical cruel father, abused son scenario.  ‘How do I change it?’ she asked. ‘Try harder,’ I said.

I guess it’s time I took my own advice.  

① Gender bends.

One way to quite easily to turn a stereotype on its head is to switch the gender of your character. Instead of your lone male as a serial killer — what would happen if she was a popular young woman?

② Familiar but fresh.

You could also go with the stereotype but give it a fresh tweak.  You start out writing about two single characters who meet through an online dating site — but end up not falling in love but becoming the best of friends.

③ Make the stereotype work for you.

I recently read a great story where the character was developed as a racist shop owner— but highly exaggerated and comical — so that it threw into relief the absurdity of prejudice and political correctness.

④ Change the viewpoint.  

Let’s take the cruel-father/abused-son scenario. What if you use an unreliable narrator and make the son a pathological liar — so each time he tells the story it changes slightly.

⑤ Cut ‘n paste.

If your story seems stale or a character a bit of a cliché — cut out pictures and words from magazines, and stick them randomly in a scrapbook. Take a pen and write some connecting words so that the pictures tell a story — no matter how bizarre or unlikely. This will get you thinking in a radical new way.

I haven’t yet found a way to answer my detective story dilemma — but I did come up with a villain who is not stereotypical and not what readers will expect. I’ve made some progress, but I’ll still have to sit and sweat it a bit more.

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This article has 10 comments

  1. Sarah E

    Extremely helpful, thank you Anthony! Stemming off of gender bends, I believe role-swapping can work, too. Instead of abusive father, it’s an abusive son, maybe difficult to imagine, but it does occur, and of course there are many types of abuse and varying ages and character traits to consider. Again, great tips! Some items I haven’t considered!

    https://seeatonblog.wordpress.com

  2. Sarah E

    …Provided it isn’t an adult child abusing his/her elderly parent, as that, I think, tips back into stereotype zone, though less common than parent abusing child.

  3. DL Kirkwood

    I am not sure I follow you on 5. Similar to a flash exercise like ” write an opening sentence for your story using these three words: watermelon, igloo, and typewriter ” one you are flashing an idea with disconnected pictures ?

  4. Anthony Ehlers

    Thanks Sarah. I like the way you’re thinking outside of the lines with the abusive son angle.

  5. Anthony Ehlers

    DL. I will try to do a blog that expands on point #5. It’s really about taking random pictures and words and trying to find the connections. It allows for creative play and unblocks the imagination.

  6. Bruce MacKinnon

    What exactly do you mean by unreliable narrator?

  7. Anthony Ehlers

    Hi Bruce. An unreliable narrator is a narrator whose credibility is doubted by the reader – forcing him to read between the lines. It’s usually in the limited first person viewpoint. The character is usually a liar but can also be someone who want to manipulate the reader for some reason.

  8. deepak

    Can you give an example for that ?

  9. Anthony Ehlers

    Hi Deepak. Great examples are: Holden in Catcher in the Rye (JD Salinger), the narrator of Life of Pie (Yann Martel), Alison in Story of my Life (Jay McInerney), and Belle in Little me (Patrick Dennis.)

  10. Anthony Ehlers

    So Deepak, an unreliable narrator in a story would : ‘I’ve been blessed with an amazing singing voice. So often, when I break into song, people weep or leave the room quietly, others beg me to stop because they’re too overcome with emotion.’
    As the reader, you’ll guess that his singing voice is probably terrible. (This is just one example of the unreliable narration)

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