Stereotypes have lingered since the dawn of civilization. They have been used as a means to identify and judge people as a group, who share a particular similarity(s) to each other. Stereotypes are a short-cut built for convenience sake. A way to know “who you are dealing with” without taking the time to investigate or get to know someone from that group. As with all things human, there is always a reason for human behaviours to arise. Why do people stereotype each other? A way to protect themselves from “outsiders”? A way to chose sides between one neighbouring nation over the other? To make themselves aware of norms in other cultures? Who should they trust, trade with, conquer? How do they best sum up those they don’t intimately know and understand, when they are too afraid to risk getting close to them?
A person could drive himself/herself mad, trying to figure out all the mechanisms behind human behaviour. All the little steps in evolution that lead us to think/feel/behave the way we do. Despite whatever reasons lie behind humanity’s obsession with stereotyping, one thing holds true, stereotypes divert our attention from the real complexities that exist within us.
Nothing in our world is as simple or as straight-forward as we’d like it to be. The combinations of traits in human beings – and any other animal species – is incalculable. Facial structure, brain structure, body type, bone structure, skin tone, height, immunity, tissue rigidity… the list goes on. We all share both similarities and differences, and those don’t always follow a linear path. We possess traits from both of our parents. In many ways, we are more similar to our mothers and fathers – and siblings – than any other people on the planet. Then again, a particular mix of characteristics from mother combined with father, can set us apart from both. The new combo might bring about a trait that is similar to someone you meet from an entirely different family tree. Genetic mutations can mix things up a lot too. The human condition can be pretty fucking unpredictable.
How does any of this relate to fiction? All things human find their way into stories, one way or another. “Pro-Stereotype” stories can validate our beliefs and bring people together under a cause. “Anti-Stereotype” stories can teach us empathy, understanding, fuel our desire for surprise, and nurture our curiosity.
Read any of my stories, or watch any of my films, and you’ll discover I prefer “Anti-Stereotype” stories. I was born with some unusual neurological traits, so anti-stereotype stories help me feel less invisible, in general. We all have our motivations, that is one of mine. As a kid, I was drawn to Ancient Greek Mythology. Unlike biblical stories, where all things Heaven are good and all things Hell are bad, Greek Myths provides us with Gods, Titans, and creatures who are as individual and complex as the average mortal.
In Greek myth, Zeus is the King of the Gods, and Hera is the Queen of the Gods. Both are immensely powerful. Both have moments of compassion, love, and mercy. Both have moments of pettiness, jealousy, and cruelty. Some of their actions are rational and some are irrational. Their siblings and children are even more complex in their motivations and values. Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom and War, has some great moments, particularly in Homer’s “Odyssey”. Odysseus’ defiance of the Gods – and his belief man should control his own fate – angers some of the most powerful gods, but not Athena, she values Odysseus’ mind more than her own ego, and instead, continually aids him.
The human and demi-god characters are no less complex. In Homer’s “Iliad”, both Odysseus and Achilles fight side by side with the allied Greek kingdoms against the walled city of Troy. Odysseus and Achilles are old friends, and Odysseus proves to be the only one capable of convincing the undefeated warrior, Achilles, to fight under the King Agamemnon’s command. Both men are champions in the war, but their motivations couldn’t be more different. Achilles fights for glory and a place in history, willing to serve under a king he despises and against a foe that never wronged him, so he will never be forgotten. Odysseus fights Troy to protect his kingdom and people, not from the Trojans or the gods, but from Agamemnon himself. Odysseus – usually an honorable and just man – knows that Agamemnon’s kingdom is more powerful than his or any other Greek kingdom. Agamemnon is a “with us or against us” kind of guy. Odysseus knows that a war with Troy is less dangerous, to his people, than rejecting Agamemnon’s call to arms. For neither man, Achilles or Odysseus, nothing is as simple as right and wrong. One fights for himself, despite what might be right or wrong. The other fights for his family and nation, despite what might be right or wrong.
In life, people need to make hard choices; damned if I do, damned if I don’t types of choices. Rarely as simple as “it was the right thing to do”. “Anti-stereotype” stories can remind us of the fact that we all live separate lives, with separate challenges and desires, and we all have to weigh the options for ourselves. Nothing is pre-determined by the “type of person” we are “classified to be” by others. You can’t look at a person, and at first glance, know what’s in their mind and their heart. The variables that make up a single person, in body and experience, are immense.
Modern stories vary greatly in how their characters are represented. At times, stereotypes can be useful, particularly for bit parts where the lack of screen time doesn’t warrant an in depth exploration of character, or for the sake of satire. Most stories display a mix of stereotypical and original characters. It’s all up to the story teller. Different stories accomplish different objectives. I personally despise conformity, and enjoy writing stories that reduce conformity to ash, but that’s just me.