Wednesday, October 20, 2010

FAQ - Stereotypes?

Q:Many readers come to your books with preconceived notions of what life/people are like in the south.  Do you feel you have to spend more time with character development to move away from these stereotypes, especially those held about Appalachia? Or do you feel you must include characters that meet these stereotypes, such as Cletus and Miss Birdie or the snake-handlers?

A: First of all, I think most stereotypes exist because there really are people like that.  My job as a writer is to make sure that I am faithful to all of the people and places I'm depicting and that I help the reader to see the person beyond the stereotype.

I include characters like Cletus because there are people like Cletus (and people named Cletus, and Odus and Philetus and Plato and his daughter Treasure and would you believe I've known two people named Cleophas?) Birdie, as I've mentioned before, is an amalgam of many women I've known here in the mountains (the Birdie of the first four books, anyway -- the Birdie in The Day of Small Things has some things going on that are the products of my imagination.)

In the course of my books, I'm trying to make it clear that there are all sorts of folks in Appalachia and very few meet the stereotype of the lazy, illiterate, ignorant, moonshine-stillin' mountaineer. Cletus, for example, may be "simple" but he's a hard worker and a genius in the woods.

But here's the insidious thing: In writing minor characters, stereotypes are an easy shortcut for the writer and offer a comforting familiarity to the reader.  Sweet little old lady . . . corrupt politician . . . bigoted bully of a small town sheriff . . . effeminate homosexual . . . sulky teen . . . dumb blonde . . . the list is endless. Just say that small town sheriff has a belly hanging over his gunbelt and has piggy eyes behind his mirrored sunglasses and we all have an idea of who he is. But he's basically a stereotype.

The fun thing is to play with the stereotypes by giving that character an unexpected trait. Maybe this sheriff stops to take a box turtle out of the road and put it safely in the grass at the side of the road. Maybe he hums arias from grand opera. Maybe, in the dead of night, he leaves a bag of groceries for a poor black family. Now that sheriff is no longer a stereotype.

I do try to develop even minor characters beyond stereotypes -- and the bigger a part the character plays in the book, the more I try to show various sides of their personality. Look what happened to Birdie when she had a book all to herself! There was a lot more to her than meets the eye. I suspect that the same could be true for any of my so-called minor characters. 

Stories waiting to be told . . .

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Joan said...

Oh I loved hearing you talk about your characters ..I am loving the book !

Martin H. said...

As ever, I really enjoyed this post. Writing is a multi-layered activity and the character development is no exception. Interesting.

WV is tedprat. Now, there's a name!

Marilyn said...

This is so interesting Vicki. I am excited as I received Signs in the Blood and Art's Blood today and The Day of Small Things should arrive very soon too! I will start reading in the next few days, I am looking forward to meeting your characters 'in the flesh'.

Reader Wil said...

Birdie certainly is a very interesting person, especially in the "Day of Small Things".

I love that book, Vicki!

willow said...

I have three brothers back in my maternal family line, from the hills of Tennessee, named Homer, Comer and Domer. Really.

Brian Miller said...

ha. i love the unexpected that does not break the stereotype but twists it...very nice...and there are no short cuts to character development...smiles.

Deanna said...

So interesting. I couldn't help think of the stereotypes of the Ozark Hillbillies. It is there because it is true. But there is more to these hills than that. Just like there is so much more to your characters than the sterotyes - I kind of think of them as a foundation. Loved the point about how to remove the stereotype with just a tiny character twist.

dleisert said...

Your way with stereotypes is one reason that I love your books. Growing up where/when I did, I heard much derogatory nonsense about hillbillies that left me sensitive to the issue. Many, if not most, books that I've read set in the region don't get beyond them. You do. Why I will continue to follow your writing career wherever it goes.


Vicki Lane said...

What fun to think my books are being read in New Zealand, Joan and Marilyn! Birdie is a world traveler!

And the Netherlands as well! Which reminds me -- Wil, you posted yesterday about a place called Zealand - and I syddenly realized that New Zwealand must take its name from that place. Was NZ named by a Dutch explorer ot mapmaker?

I've known a Comer, Willow -- but your three ancestors take the prize.

Deanna -- this post happened because at the convention I was on a panel sitting next to a fast-talking fellow with a tough-guy Chicago accent and just when I thought I had him typed, he announced that he'd taken his degree in classical Greek and Latin -- and my world view shifted just a tad.

bo parker said...

Stereotypes? The standard definition is something conforming to a fixed or general pattern of characteristics.
Plywood has a fixed pattern of characteristics. One sheet is the same as another, except for the thin layer of veneer applied to the surface-for outward appearance.
Wood has character. And no two pieces are the same, even if hewn from the same species of tree.
Humans are not plywood. Each one is as different as a piece of wood.
For me, one of the most enduring parts of your writing, one of the things that sets you apart from many others who try to present people in Appalachia, is that you do not take the "easy shortcut," present plywood cutouts (stereotypes), and "make it easy for the reader."
You present the characters in your books as pieces of wood, as individual humans, some maybe as rough hewn as the rails in a split-rail fence, but they are as real as the trees of the mountains among which they exist.

Mama-Bug said...

What an interesting post Vicki, I really enjoyed it. Can't wait til I get your books!

Bouncin' Barb said...

This is really informative. Thanks. You know Vicki, when I moved to the south almost 3 years ago I kept waiting to meet stereotypical people of te true south. Charleston was no the place. Myrtle Beach is not either. I spend some time in Charlotte while Bruce was in training for his last job and had days free to wander. I met more of what I expected in North Carolina than anywhere else I've been. We've been to Nanthahala (?) and Ashville and it was very much what we expected the south to be. I love it here. And I'm so new to it all.

Star said...

Very interesting. We all love people and how different they are to us. I have nearly finished my 'of bees and mist' book, then I can't wait to start on your first book. I am so looking forward to meeting your characters.
Blessings, Star

Southwest Arkie said...

I am enjoying your book, The Day of Small Things! I agree with you and Deanna- there really are people who are "hillbillies" or "dumb blondes", but peel an onion and you'll always find the rest of the story.

Marilyn said...

Vicki you are right - New Zealand was named by Dutch cartographers after it was discovered by Abel Tasman, a Dutch explorer. They named it Nova Zeelandia after a province in the Netherlands called Zeeland but later James Cook, a British explorer, changed it to New Zealand.
Interestingly a Danish island is called Zealand which means Sealand but this had nothing to do with the naming of NZ.

Vicki Lane said...

Thanks, Bo. I think I'm trying to write to the fact that while there may be people who fit others' preconceived notions, there's always more to them than the surface appearance.

Thanks, Mamabug -- hope you enjoy them!

Of course, there's not one single type of Southerner, Barb! But we're mostly pretty nice and will take a Yankee to our heart as long as he/she doesn't come in and tell us how to do things. It would likely work the same way if a Southerner went up North and started making a fuss about things -(Why can't I get sweet tea? Or decent grits?)

Oh yes, Star! What a boring place the world would be if we were all the same!

So glad you're enjoying the book, SWArkie!

Thanks for the info, Marilyn -- I can't believe I never wondered where the name came from.

phyllis w. said...

Vicki, I always enjoy your characters, especially those who remind me of people who have passed on.

My husband had an older relative called "Uncle Crate." Turns out his name was Socrates, but it was pronounced "So-crates." I guess someone had seen the name in print, but never heard it pronounced. And I ought to send you a list of my Granny's siblings - some great names.

Tipper said...

Interesting post! Hmmm I'm not sure any books would make sense or come to life for the reader without a few sterotypes thrown in.