Are stereotypes bad for stories? Do we want our readers to type cast us—or the loved ones we write about—as simple stereotypes? Or do stereotypes help us build a setting for a story?
Breaking the Stereotypes: Steel Magnolias and Cast Iron Camellias
Stereotypes seem like a cop-out when it comes to describing people, because they are. However, when you use them as a starting point they can be very helpful. Comparing yourself to common stereotypes can help you define who you are. For instance, growing up in the south, I’ve known my share of “steel magnolias” and “cast iron camellias.”
But many of them, like me, would protest at the label. In fact, explaining how an individual breaks the mold of stereotypes makes a great way to describe loved ones.
For instance, there’s a hidden fragility behind the beauty and fragrance of those huge magnolia blooms. If the temperature outside is too cold, though the tree looks fine, the blooms will turn brown and drop off within twenty-four hours. The “steel magnolias” in my life, generally have maintained their outer radiance despite quite a few dips into the frigid zones of the thermometer. There’s a great story in that!
On the other hand, these women might quite like the comparison to something that grows out of red clay to reach heights of over 30 feet and lends a sense of beauty and stateliness.
Likewise, the more you know about cast iron frying pans, the less apt you might be to refer to a woman as “a cast iron camellia.” Cast iron frying pans last forever and require very little maintenance. They’re great for the people that use them, but they don’t get much pampering. You don’t use soap to scrub your cast iron cooking skillet. Real Simple advises, “A cast-iron skillet isn’t ideal for a set-aside-to-soak sort of person. For best results, rinse the pan with hot water immediately after cooking. If you need to remove burned-on food, scrub with a mild abrasive, like coarse salt, and a nonmetal brush to preserve the nonstick surface…”
What? No soaking? No care? No matter how tough and practical we are, southern women do enjoy some care and pampering—particularly long, luxurious soaks. And, we’re not very fond of salt ground into our skins.
Using Stereotypes to describe others
People need a reference point and storytellers love to give their readers ideas they can visualize. Comparing your loved one or ancestor to a stereotype and noting the exceptions is a great way to orient your reader. It provides the background for your character sketch.
And, don’t be afraid to mix your metaphors stereotypes. Perhaps she or he ruled with an iron fist in a velvet glove, except when it came to their grandchildren, with whom they acted more like a cut of boneless chicken than a disciplinarian.
Stereotypes can enhance a family story
Typical isn’t a bad thing. Stereotypes exist because they often do run true to life. In many ways, my grandmother was a typical grandmother. Her fried chicken was the best. She loved us all unconditionally. I’ll take that over extraordinarily different any day!
What stereotypes would you use to describe loved ones? With which ones would you contrast your relatives? Please share!