Wednesday, October 20, 2010

How to Annoy Your Audience: Stereotypes and Generalizations

The typical fictional New York City will usually be characterized by a few things. First, fictional NYC citizens are rude and soulless.  Old people and children will always be roughly shoved out of the way of tough city folk, and money and success define a fictional NYC citizen's life. Second, in the fictional NYC, soulful, green-haired, spontaneous, and poor artists populate Greenwich Village or any of the nicest neighborhoods in Manhattan. Third, you have to use a specific lingo in order to receive food from any eating establishment.  Topping it all off, the negative vibes in fictional NYC are enough to cause a river of Pepto pink slime to run under the city and bring back the soul of Dracula's rival-in-meanness neighbor.


See how annoying all that is? Not only that, it's pretty insulting to make all those generalizations.  (Except for the last part.  Ghostbusters, you get an exemption.)  New York City, to the average tourist, is quite fast-paced, but the people are awesome and the city is amazing.  Okay, my second point was first made in my creative writing textbook, but it is true.  People tend to put poverty stricken, fictional artists in a lovely loft apartment in Greenwich Village.  Only thing is, Greenwich is a beautiful neighborhood and it's pretty expensive to live there.  (Also, I don't know too many artists, but I do know that most of them are fun people who are focused on their work rather than doing random and typical free-spirited things.)  Also, since most New Yorkers speak English, they understand perfectly when you say "I'd like a cheeseburger and an iced tea, please."

Now we can move on to the stereotypical South.

In the stereotypical South, everyone everywhere drawls everything.  Sentences take five minutes to finish. Cotton is still king, and football is the life of everyone who's anyone.  Southern belles always have an air of treachery about them, and every upstanding woman wears pearls.  There is also lots of background music, usually consisting of a harmonica or some slow, methodical picking of random guitar strings.  The stereotypical South, Louisiana especially, also tends to be a choice residential area for vampires.  They like the football programs, I suppose.

While music and vampires aren't necessarily stereotypes, everything else is.  How do I know this?  Well, I live in the South.  Fiction that includes Southern locations and a Gone with the Wind accent permeating all the speech is, quite frankly, annoying.  (No, I didn't intend that Rhett Butler allusion there.  That's just a bonus.)

Granted, I do live in North Carolina.  Cotton wasn't king here so much as tobacco.  Being more of a vaguely British/pirate persuasion, we don't speak all that slowly.  True, there are certain people who insist on the haughty, Southern blue-blood, old money thing, but even that has a different flavor than somewhere like, say...Georgia.  There aren't old plantation houses on every block.  (In truth, only about 4% of the antebellum Southern population actually lived on a plantation.)  Recently, I've read somewhere that North Carolinians speak more of a "proper English" than other states, stemming from the many English settlers in the state.  North Carolina is pretty unique, actually.

It's not the only unique place though.  When a character is described as having a "Southern" accent, and when that accent is the only defining feature of that character, the writer is cheating both herself and the readers.  For one thing, every state has a different accent, or two different, or three.  (North Carolina has at least three regional differences in accents, spanning from the Coastal Plains, which I have, and the Western North Carolina accent.)  "Southern" characters who are Southern in accent only are annoying, flat, and less than they could be.

British accents can be the same way.  There are many different accents in the British isles, and saying that someone has a "slight British" accent (as Abra Ebner does in Feather) is a little bit lazy. Not only is it lazy, it also means that you're cheating yourself out of some character development and dialogue, and this goes for any accent.  Instead of your main character observing that another character has a British/Southern/whatever accent, have them make conversation.  It might look something like this:  "The boy had an accent, but Susie couldn't place it.  'Where are you from?'  Louis looked up from his book.  'I'm from....'"  This conversation establishes characterization.  If your main character doesn't want to be embarrassed by asking such a question, imply that and let them find out later.

If you're unsure about a location, and you want to write about it, please do your research.  My complaint with many books is that the author simply does not do research in key areas.  If you set your stories in a real life location, but get things blatantly wrong (you'll see more of this in my analysis of Feather) about the area, then someone is bound to notice.  (Spoiler alert:  Feather mentions the "hillsides of London" once...but London is a metropolitan area.  Ravines of New York?  Crashing waves in Oklahoma?  I've never been to London, but Doctor Who is sometimes set there and 28 Days Later was a great story partly set in London...I have a good idea of what it looks like.)  When you don't bother to get details right because you assume that no one will know or care, you insult your readers.

Also, there's generalizations about people that you never want to make.  Many times, I am assumed to be Goth, and I am not.  I do wear a lot of darker colors, for various reasons.  Mostly taste.  I do like dark red lipstick (classy!) and lace.  (I even wear pearls, but I swear I stay away from the hoop skirts.)  Also, I tend to be seen as a pessimist.  (I'm not.)  While I realize that I probably invite these generalizations (unintentionally...), they're not fair in writing.  Again, defining a character solely by appearance, dress, or accent is a bad idea.  You end up with flat characters who cannot grow or change because they have no substance to change from.  The same applies to places.  Defining New York City, the South, Southern California, or anywhere based on what you've read in books or seen in movies is going to prove problematic.  That's why it's important to write what you know.  If you want to do differently, then at least research what and where you are writing about.  Your story will make more sense and will seem more real.

Check back for my next post.  Right now, I'm reading through Guardian, the sequel to Feather.  I hope to have a review of that up soon, and an analysis of Feather that can help you see where a story can go wrong.  I'll also be writing about characters next.  Stay tuned, and thanks for stopping by.

1 comment:

  1. "Again, defining a character solely by appearance, dress, or accent is a bad idea. You end up with flat characters who cannot grow or change because they have no substance to change from."

    Eye-opener...i learned to write like this in jr high/high school, and i wondered why it was so hard to make a character out of it. The textbooks we used always said to make sure the audience knows what the person looks like and acts like and how old he/she is and then stick to it so as to make a point of identity. I tried to compensate, which made the little 5-page stories i wrote really weird.