“Understand me on this, kid. Everything in boxing is backwards to life. You want to move to the left, you don’t step left, you push on the right toe, like this. To move right, you use the left toe…Instead of runnin from pain, which is the natural thing in life, in boxing you step to it, get me?”
-F.X. Toole, “Million $$$ Baby”
A while back, I was reading an Ellen Gilchrist story, “The Abortion,” and I got good and worked up about stereotypes. The story was moving, well-wrought, visceral, exactly what I’ve come to expect from Gilchrist, but as I worked through the first ten pages or so, I kept thinking that it just relied too heavily on stereotypes. Her characters kept doing what I expected them to do, largely because of stereotypes associated with the types of people they were. “Cut all that,” I thought, “and this story would be golden.”
That desire to get rid of stereotype completely is a pretty standard response. We see, for example, a foul-mouthed soldier acting crude, and we say “But this is expected! He’s just living up to that stereotype!” We politely request that the offending material be excised from the piece. “It’ll be stronger without the stereotypes. Then we can see who this person really is.” We take for granted that stereotypes are a bad thing in writing because they absolutely are a bad thing in the real world.
But writing ain’t the real world, and while it’s generally a good idea to steer clear of stereotypes in our daily interactions with other people, we’re missing out on a huge opportunity every time we veer away from stereotype in writing without first analyzing its function within the piece. But good writers, ones who embrace the risks that go along with using stereotypes for specific purposes, avoid this pitfall, and it pays off in their work.
Take, for example, that young soldier. He’s just a kid, and he’s at war, and he says things that are crude. We’ve seen that character many times. In fact, he’s become something of a cliché, and what do we do with cliché? We recoil from it. But when a writer doesn’t recoil from the cliché, when instead he looks at the stereotype and steps into its path, like a boxer stepping toward a punch, then there’s the potential for something vital in that piece of fiction.
That’s exactly what Tim O’Brien does in “How to Tell a True War Story,” a chapter/story from his book The Things They Carried. He takes the stereotype of the foul-mouthed young soldier, and he embraces it. He lets his character Rat Kiley call the sister of a dead friend a “dumb cooze” several times through the course of the story. It’s a shocking moment, a moment that we recoil from both because of the language used and because of the stereotype that we’re seeing, but O’Brien steps into the path of the stereotype, he fleshes Rat out from within its confines, and the story is richer for it. Rat embodies that stereotype, but he also moves beyond it. And here’s the thing, he moves beyond it largely because of the stereotype. Our fundamental understanding of Rat as a character is shaped by those two words that we’d happily avoid. Here, I suppose, is the fundamental difference between what O’Brien is doing and what we fear when we see a stereotype on the page. In a bad piece of writing, a stereotype is the end of our understanding of a character. It’s a shortcut that allows the writer to avoid the hard work of fleshing out his character. O’Brien puts in the work though, and the stereotype becomes our entrance into the life of the character. It’s our access point.
We want characters to be people who live and breathe beyond the clichés associated with the surface level of who they are. That’s well and good, but it’s worth noting that we can reach that point, that we can dig into the lives of our characters just as effectively when we move into the stereotype as we can when we get out of its way. I should have realized this when I was reading that Gilchrist story. I put it down after those first ten pages, dismissing it as a story that just wasn’t up to par with her other writing. I went back to the story a few days ago, and sure enough, it’s a killer story. She uses the stereotypes in those first pages in the same way that O’Brien does, as an access point to the lives of her characters, and by the time she really gets going, she’s opened those characters up from the inside. It’s beautifully done, and it invests the last half of the story with a weight that just wouldn’t exist if the stereotypes hadn’t been there in the first half.
Christopher Lowe is the author of Those Like Us: Stories (SFASU Press, 2011). His fiction has appeared widely in journals includingThird Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, Grist, and War, Literature, and the Arts. He teaches English and Creative Writing at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, LA.