Stereotypes, Caricatures, and Straw Men- and why fiction should avoid them

Writing good characters is a difficult task. And it’s tempting, when you, as an author, have control of fictional lives, to hold them to the way you think they should act and make them say and do things that you hold dear.

For the love of Tolkien, please don’t do this. It’s an abuse of trust on the author’s part.

The three most common abuses of this trust in fiction are stereotypes, caricatures, and the ‘straw man’ argument. I find all of them equally frustrating, but for very different reasons. So let’s take break them down one by one, shall we?

1)      Stereotypes

Stereotypes are a common buzz word when talking about pop culture and stories in that culture today, but I think there’s some confusion between a stereotype and a caricature in many of these criticisms. A stereotype, as defined by Oxford Dictionaries, is “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.” (It also can mean “a relief printing plate cast in a mould made from composed type or an original plate,” which I found interesting, but admittedly irrelevant.)

ANYWAY, my point is that a stereotype is a generalization and an oversimplification of a characteristic or trait. But- and I think this is key to the distinction between a stereotype and a caricature for the purposes of fiction- it’s an oversimplification that has a grain of reality. That’s part of the reason stereotypes can be so damaging- they draw off something that’s common to enough people of a group that it can be very easy to dismiss the entire group as universally possessing ‘x’ characteristic.

An example (one that I actually love) would be the Sassy Gay Friend. If you’ve not seen the skits, look them up on YouTube NOW. I’ll wait.

I should be fair and say that I absolutely adore these skits- I think they’re very funny and poke fun at classics in a very memorable and entertaining manner. But that character is still a walking over-the-top embodiment of how a lot of people perceive gay men. It doesn’t obviously doesn’t render the skits bad, but it is an example of the kind of thing I’m talking about.

Why It’s an Abuse of the Reader’s Trust: First, it’s a lazy way to make a character. Now in the example I used, the exaggerated qualities were intentional, so making such a character work is possible, but it’s a very tricky way to write and it opens the door to a lot of pitfalls and mistakes. It can lead to minor characters becoming flat and one-dimensional, rendering your fictional world flat. A stereotyped character doesn’t have anything new or surprising to offer the audience, and frankly they aren’t much fun to write. So don’t bother with them. If you find yourself acting on a lot of perceived expectations, try and seek out a member of whatever group you’re talking about. Find a blog, a memoir, or something. And if you find yourself forced to employ a cliché, make sure you give your character life beyond that predictable trait.

2)      Caricatures

For the purposes of this blog entry I’m defining a caricature as a character who’s based on misrepresentations of a group of people or of a certain kind of person, usually with the purpose of making the character look ridiculous. An example in an otherwise enjoyably fluffy series would be Senator Duke in Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville series. He’s explicitly described as fanatically religious and a Bible-thumper, and overall comes across as very unstable, to the point that he kidnaps the protagonist and throws her in a cage for national television (though in fairness the latter was a combination of the machinations of a couple other characters as well as Duke). He’s got no development or depth beyond being Kitty’s rival. I wouldn’t have minded his fanaticism if I’d gotten the sense of a personality behind him, but there was literally nothing to this character other than his being a fiery fundamentalist.

An example of slightly less irritating caricatures, or at least ones done deliberately, would be those in Voltaire’s Candide. And while I do think that Candide is an example of caricatured characters written correctly, Candide was written to make political and philosophical points. In that case Voltaire was writing with a point to prove and using a story to demonstrate those points. I think that this is probably the only way of making caricatures work in a story. They won’t function in a plot-driven or character-driven tale without coming across as absurd.

Why It’s an Abuse of the Reader’s Trust: Again, this is lazy writing. It also is rather irritating when the author in question can’t be bothered to give their villains or villainous side characters some depth. Caricatures are hard to believe because they’re so flat and unbelievable. I find evil characters more convincing when they do have depth- and that depth doesn’t need a sappy backstory or even much goodness. There just has to be evidence that this person is multi-faceted, as most human beings are.

3)      Straw Man

A ‘straw man,’ as defined by the ever-reliable Wikipedia, is “an informal fallacy based on a misrepresentation of an opponent’s postion.” In fiction this will usually come with a resounding argument that ends in the main character triumphantly proving the villain wrong. There can obviously be a great deal of overlap between using a straw man argument and a caricature, but what I find so infuriating about a straw man argument is that it’s used when an author isn’t willing to think seriously about whatever issue they’re bringing up. Either engage with the point or don’t, but don’t misrepresent the opposing point of view just to make it easier to prove your own.

There is no way for this to be used well in fiction, because it’s a mistake as opposed to a device. It’s using a fictional character as a platform for a personal soapbox, which as far as I’m concerned is one of the worst sins of writing.

Why It’s an Abuse of the Reader’s Trust: A straw man argument in a book is insulting the reader, plain and simple. It’s implying that of two positions, one of which is wrong, the reader is unable to reason out the correct conclusion. The implicit assumption of a straw man argument in literature is that when a character takes a position, the reader will have to be guided to the correct way to think about that position.

Maybe I’m just contradictory, but I find that assumption infuriating. Oh, and since it also involves ignoring a certain facet of a position, it’s yet another example of lazy writing.

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