Stereotypes in Narrative Art

Recently watched one of those shows in which four critics - it's always four - debate the quality of new books. Critic A said that a character in the novel in question was clichéd. No, said critic B, such women really exist!

Sigh. First, it would be a strange complaint about a fiction book to say something's not realistic. Second, a cliché is but a stereotype, and the existence of a stereotype does not mean it's not true. If anything, the opposite is the case.

Stereotypes in literature and other forms of narrative art can be a problem for a different reason: they're not cognitively challenging, allowing the mind to quickly call up information about the character, because it has this information stored and connected to the characteristics you're given. If your mind's in the mood for a bit of a challenge, it's likely to be bored by cut-out characters. But the unchallenging nature of clichéd characters can also be a virtue: It allows the storyteller to quickly dispense information.

Hence, a rule of thumb for telling stories: If the character's only there for performing a function, you might want to reach for the cliché. Minimum fuss for the reader, info received, move on to the important stuff. On the other hand, if the character's a main attraction of the story, you want to make the character somewhat interesting, hence somewhat challenging, hence somewhat non-clichéd. Of course, another aspect is your intended audience. It's no coincidence that children's TV shows feature very bland characters, and that the villains are particularly bland. Often, the villains are not themselves meant to be interesting, their only function is to act as adversaries and allow the heroes to defeat them.

It seems all of this is but a special case of a more general rule. After all, the same argument has been made with respect to clichéd metaphors.

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