The Trouble with Cardboard



We’re all guilty of it.

Every writer, no matter what the genre, writes a stereotype somewhere.

And the kicker is, all advice to the contrary – INCLUDING MY OWN! –  not only is it unavoidable, but sometimes it’s necessary.

There are basically three kinds of stereotypes, and only one of them has any real place in fiction anymore. The other two – you need to find a way to either excise them from your work or subvert them, because we have all moved on. Because, as my Prime Minister said, it is 2016.

The first one is the racial/gender stereotype. Do not – I repeat: DO NOT – start jawing at me about SJWs and PC. I don’t care about the politics on this one (well, I do, but that’s beside the point).

Racial and gender stereotypes are lazy.

There is no way to sugarcoat this. If you need a sidekick that has martial arts as a skill for plot purposes, do some goddamned research and a little creative thinking and leave the Asian sensei karate master with the Zen platitudes and the bonsai tree alone.

Seriously. Put that down. We all know where it’s been.

If the main character must fall in love, make it real. Make the love interest do more and be more than a prop. Give them real personalities. Whole personalities. Flaws and strengths and skills and blind spots. Make this part of the story, not the furniture.

The other stereotype is even lazier. It’s the stock background characters. The walk-on parts with only one or two lines, but you, the writer, cannot even give them something other than an off-the-shelf tag that has been used so many times that if that thing was an actor, s/he would be out-earning most major film stars.

Fat, jolly innkeepers and pinch-faced housekeepers – I’m looking at you.

But there are, in every genre, some stereotypes that you really can’t chuck away. There are some tropes that if you mess with too much, your fans might well desert you in droves, after dropping off a “Dear John” letter to drive the point home.

There are always some things that are too sacred to muck around with. At least, not without a really compelling reason, and that needs to be more than just playing around.

Confounding reader expectations is not something you can do without penalty. You cannot do it for a lark, and that goes about quadruple for genre fiction.

You need to be careful. You can twist a trope, you can trash a trope, but if, in so doing, you mess with reader expectations too deeply, your point will get lost amid the chagrin.

It’s a really fine line.

Take vampires.

People think Anne Rice kind of reinvented vampires, and I guess, in a sense, she did, but she did it only by swivelling the focus away from what vampires did to normal people and onto what vampiricism did to the vampires.

It changed reader perspective, but it did so without failing reader expectations. It expanded reader expectations, so that every writer who arrives in this genre must now take into account what those new expectations are.

It was championship stuff, and you cannot expect to do that every time.

So when I read about other writer’s decision to demolish a trope, I worry. I especially worry when they seem to be doing this purely to be “different”.  Recently, I read a bit of synopsis that suggested that a known and well-used form of alien was being given a very human set of psychological problems that are, to be honest, not really within that life-form’s mental make-up. It would take a really experienced and gifted author to make anyone believe in it, and even then, I think without a really well-fleshed out backstory that could somehow be relayed without an infodump, it’s unlikely anyone would buy in.


I’m not saying that you should not try. I’m saying you need a damned good reason to make the attempt.


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