Stereotypes are bad, right? We’re not supposed to consign broad categories of people into these simplistic kinds of caricatures and yet… we do. We all do it because it’s a kind of mental shorthand for how to react to and deal with people. Some of us make a conscious effort not to give in to the temptation but no matter how hard you try you have to deal with that stereotype and consciously overcome it.
Why do we do it?
The sad truth is that a lot of the time it’s perfectly valid to stereotype. Most blustering, red-faced religious conservatives are fairly interchangeable – at least on the surface. People dress, speak and otherwise present themselves according to stereotypes to express some aspect of who they are and how they want to be treated. We run into problems when the presentation and the intention don’t match, but it’s still true.
The OED defines a stereotype as: “A widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.”
That’s, perhaps, a little uncharitable. Another way to view it, if you’ll forgive me a little pretentiousness for a moment, is that of the Jungian archetype, which often sound more like an eclectic tarot set than a psychological concept. Some of Jung’s archetypes included the mother, the father, the trickster, the child and in motifs such as the flood, creation, the apocalypse.
In terms of stereotyping what you have there are stereotypes and clichés.
So should we banish stereotypes to the dustbin of history or should we embrace them? Archetypes and motifs, stereotypes and clichés have too much power and usefulness to be completely abandoned, though we may need to revise our lists somewhat. The ‘Uncle Tom’ stereotype of the past is probably no longer appropriate unless writing historical fiction, but that doesn’t mean others don’t retain their general usefulness.
A good stereotype or cliché, if such a thing exists, is a weapon in a creative person’s arsenal. Sure, it may seem lazy but in short stories, games and fiction with restricted amounts of text, dialogue or screen time you often need to convey a lot of information in a very short space of time. Stereotypes are a sort of ‘macro’, like stealing someone else’s piece of code and using it in your own programming to save time, or using stock footage in a film.
The thug, the whore with a heart of gold, the dumb guard, the gravel-voiced vigilante, these all serve useful purposes and whether you’re charitable and call them archetypes or uncharitable and call them stereotypes, they convey a lot of information in one go.
This is even more useful when you’re playing roleplaying games and the vast majority of people you run into are unimportant side characters. Without any personality they’re just a cipher, with a stereotype they at least have a little character and you have something to build on.
The ruddy-faced innkeeper, the greedy shopkeeper, the jobsworth guard, these can all be dropped into just about any game at a moment’s notice and they don’t detract from it by being a stereotype, they add an element of character and personality where – perhaps – there was none before.
A stereotype doesn’t have to end there though. While it can be enough it can also serve as a mere foundation.
Consider pretty much every character in, say, The Simpsons. Every single one is a stereotype from the motherly, disapproving Marge to the oafish, irresponsible slob Homer, to the somewhat dodgy Asian stereotype of Apu.
At least, they all started out that way and yet The Simpsons was, from the get go, a big success – once they were free of Tracey Ullman anyway. Why? Because everything was instantly recognisable and we all ‘got it’, because of the use of stereotypes. In 25 years though, every character has developed some nuance, some background (even if continuity is just something that happens to other people) and from those stereotypes have emerged more rounded comedic characters.
The Fast Show was essentially a string of these, centred around mostly stereotypical characters such as Rowley Birkin QC – who was based on a real person. These sorts of stock characters are not a remotely new concept, the idea of the ‘stock character’ a, formalised stereotype, goes all the way back to Classical Greece where, in 319 BCE Theophrastus wrote extensively on character sketches and character as a genre, with thirty stock characters including such recognisable tropes as The Talkative Man, The Coward and The Man of Petty Ambition. Later classical writers and playwrights added to this and the tradition survives to this day in comedy, much of it via the tradition of the music hall.
Returning to games, unless you’re working very intensely with a set character and a set storyline you’re going to need to anticipate certain stereotypes, even more so the case with many computer games which must anticipate and program for the actions of the players, but also within tabletop roleplaying games where the three main archetypes are the magician, the rogue and the fighter.
You can see that in Numenera replaced with Nano, Jack and Glaive.
You can see that in Cyberpunk with Netrunner, Fixer and Solo.
You can see it in almost every game, implicit or explicit, with character classes or without.
Every game starts with a baseline idea of a set of stereotypes, which you can then work with or against, exemplify or contradict.
And that’s where the fun really comes in, where you fill out the details, where you defy the stereotypes or sub-specialise within them to create something new and individual and that can happen over time as you grow more attached to the character and more versatile or powerful, learning new things about their background.
In designing my game Forever Summer I went looking to the source material – kids adventure movies and series, most especially the favourites I saw growing up like Goonies – and saw the use of stereotypes there. Whether it’s Stand by Me or Explorers you know largely all you really need to know about the characters within the first half hour of the film, if not before. Stereotypes get all that introductory mess out of the way, leaving the film free to get on with the story with some more detail about the characters coming out – as a form of character development but not really – as you go along.
Nobody said every game, every roleplaying session, every book, comic or magazine had to be completely stellar and groundbreaking or that you must avoid stereotypes, even when they really do exist in real life. There are people I know in real life who would be unacceptable characters in books or TV series because they seem like crass stereotypes, yet they’re real people.
Seriously, don’t worry about it. Stereotypes are just another tool in the toolbox and if you muck about with them and keep revisiting them, they won’t say stereotypes for long.
Said the long-haired, bearded, role-player with a house full of books…