Avoiding Character Stereotypes by Kay Keppler
Let’s welcome back monthly columnist, editor, and novelist, Kay Keppler, as she shares with us “Avoiding Character Stereotypes.” Enjoy!
How careful are you when you describe your characters? Have you ever—or ever been tempted—to fall into clichés to get your point across?
When Readers Hate Character Stereotypes
Erin Davis belonged to a book club, and while reading one month’s selection, she became so disgusted by how the heroine was described that she decided to investigate whether—and to what extent—other authors gender-typed their characters.
She wanted to find out if what she calls “lazy writing” was as widespread as it seemed.
She wanted specifics:
- Do authors mention particular body parts for men more than women?
- Are women’s bodies described with different adjectives than those attributed to men?
The Study to Study Character Stereotypes
Davis chose 2,000 books, including New York Times best sellers, Pulitzer Prize nominees and winners, Man Booker shortlisted books and winners, books frequently taught in American high schools and colleges, and books that frequently appear on Best Of lists. Approximately 35 percent of the selections have at least one female author.
Then she ran them through a parser that identified sentences mentioning body parts. She then extracted the owner of the body parts and any adjectives that described them. (Click here for the specifics of her methodology.)
The Results of Her Study
While probably not that surprising, her results should give all authors pause. Her findings show that authors tend to describe men and women in different—and predictable—ways.
For example, the parsing of 2,000 books reveals that the body part “brain” is attributed to men 1.61 times more often for men than women, while “hair” is applied 2.27 more often to women.
Men “grin” more than three times as often in books than women, while women “smile” 1.31 times as often as men.
Men have “backs” 2.85 times more often than women, while women have “hips,” “waists,” and “thighs” (2.29, 2.25, and 1.61 times more often, respectively).
“Breasts,” it probably goes without saying, describe women 6.61 times more often.
As far as adjectives go, “blonde” is used to describe women’s hair 16 times more often than for men, but “disheveled” is a 50-50 split.
Women’s arms are “slender” by a 16x margin, as well.
Men’s bodies are “powerful” by a 16x margin; women’s bodies are “naked” by a 2x margin.
By a 2x margin, women’s eyes are “wide” or “green”; men’s eyes are “black” and “cold”; women’s skin is “pale” and “white”; men’s skin is “warm.”
People—readers and authors—tend to have ideas of what men and women look like, so it’s not that unusual that some of these adjectives turn up repeatedly in descriptions of either gender.
In fact, Davis has a quiz in the article in which she asks participants to guess if the adjective applies to a man or woman. Readers are consistent 88 percent of the time.
Think Outside the Box for Your Character Stereotypes
However, that doesn’t mean that authors shouldn’t use every chance they can to describe their characters in fresh ways, with unique adjectives or attributes. A woman’s legs can be “powerful” as well as “long” or “bare.” A man’s grin can be “silly” as well as “thin.”
All writers want their characters to be unforgettable. Using fresh, unique language helps you get there.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
She lives in northern California. Contact her here at Writer’s Fun Zone in the comments below, or at [email protected] to ask questions, suggest topics, or if you prefer, complain.
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