Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Uniting Power of Stereotypes

The term stereotype has a well-earned negative perception. But outside of social and business relations and in the sphere of writing, stereotypes are crucial.
Stereotypes can have a strong influence in good writing in three main ways:
1. Minor/Brief Characters
As I've written before, scripts and productions should be extremely conservative in their development. The more cluttered a story, the more likely the audience will get lost, the metaphor will go astray, or the theme will be strained. Characters that are used- like the elevator operator, the cabby, the waitress- for only a few short lines would serve the story to be more typified. I'm not speaking of offensive stereotypes but certainly "types". Audience members want to have familiarity with the surroundings even for brief exchanges with minor characters.
2. Developed from a  Stereotype
Creating a major or main character who begins as a stereotype but develops through the course of the story is what has created some of the most compelling character narratives seen on the silver screen. Even racists like Archie Bunker and Andy Sipowicz- each considered repugnant by most people, also represent the ignorance that many people have deep within them. Their growth from a stereotypical character to a definitively flawed but loveable human being is important for everyone from writers, actors, producers, and the audience to experience.
3. Turning a Stereotype Upside-Down
Perhaps the most difficult of the three and should be attempted only by the most skillful of writers. Taking a very recognizable stereotype only to actually show that in the end, that other characters (and by proxy the audience) are the one's making the judgement is a tricky juggling act. One of the most powerful examples of turning the stereotype on its head is with the Peter Seller's masterpiece "Being There"in which Chance the Gardner who remains very basic and simple as a character is given depth and is entirely misunderstood by all around him. So deeply is Chance reinvented that he walks on water at the end of the movie.

Taking the time to consider how stereotypes, particularly the use of creating typified minor characters, in your scripts can really improve the delivery of your audio play.


  1. I agree 100% with this. I think stereotypes are one of the most essential tools of Audio Drama. We audio drama producers can only work with what's already in the listener's heads, so we have to use stereotypes because that's what our audience knows.

  2. I agree with you, Robyn, that what Snowe is calling stereotypes is in some ways what the audience knows and comprehends... Especially in audio theatre, where we cannot see the performer, the context needs to be as complete as possible in the least amount of words. Character types is a great way to do this -- and, as said above, if you can twist or add a quirk to a stereotype, one that doesn't distract from the story proper, it can make an insignificant person suddenly interesting, as the audience has an assumed character-identity unexpectedly deepened.

  3. Well said Gentlemen.
    I especially like the description you make Eric. The unexpected twist in a character you already know can make the character seem incredibly deep because it brings so much instant questions and answers to his motivation... or if the twist is extremely off the wall, simply more questions to be asked further.
    ~J. Snowe