Would you use a cliché or a stereotype in your writing? Is it sacrilegious or acceptable? I found myself in an interesting spot whilst debating this question in my head… as, to an extent, I have used both in my ebook. The question is have I achieved a balance and were my motives right for using them?
Let’s define them:
A cliché is an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect.
Stereotypes are simplistic conceptions and ideas of a group based on prior assumptions.
When does a cliché become a cliché? When is the meaning lost? When, or do I, lose credibility using them?
There are clichés and stereotypes all around us all of the time, they are universal and would not exist if they did not already mean something to many. So can we use them?
Clichés are interesting because they have meaning…’I love you’ a cliché, but said with heartfelt sincerity means everything, but said constantly and without feeling becomes a lost set of words. We often use clichés, but I think it depends on the usage as to whether they work.
Am I a stereotype? Look at me…stay-at-home-mum, school runs every day, dinner on the table for hubby and family when he gets home from work… Does that make me a stereotype or the norm? To some people I am exactly what they consider a typical wife and mother…their idea of a woman based on their own expectations. So am I? I don’t think so, throw some individualisms (is that even a word?) and I can throw away the stereotype… I write, I paint, I scrapbook…okay, so now I’m conforming to another stereotype…typical arty, crafty, creative type stay-at-home-mum… Can I escape it? I struggle with depression and self-harm, this perhaps removes me a bit from those earlier stereotypes. I ride a motorbike…there goes another!
So on the surface I can be a stereotype, but ultimately if you get to know me, I’m not. Unless you know many more, depressed housewife, writing, bikers out there! We can break conformity.
So why do authors use stereotypes, we just have to look at Harry Potter to see several! Harry himself, shy, unsure of himself, orphan with ‘wicked step-parents’, broken glasses, usual no-hoper unless something amazing happens…which it will! Hermione, nerdy genius, aloof and too bright to be popular and Ron, ungainly, not the ‘right’ background’ and needs to make people laugh to feel comfortable. I don’t even need to mention huge, hairy, scary giant with a heart of gold and soft as a marshmallow!
But Harry Potter is a literary hero, a cliché in himself! How many super heroes begin as humble, shy, unconfident characters, but become amazing, handsome, hugely talented alter egos? Many books are based on clichés!
So if Rowling can be a success with a handful of stereotypes, can I get away with it?
My characters are normal people with normal lives. I don’t believe they are stereotypes, any more than I think I am one myself. My main protagonist is a seven-year-old who dies in the first line of the book…upon reaching ‘heaven’ she finds she can create her own. Without thinking she causes flowers to bloom, and later can see the connection to the myriad flowers and shrubbery as she recalled her mother’s attention to gardening, her garden was somewhere she felt safe and close to her mum.
Later in the book she meets other children and even visits some of their heavens…this is where my query exists. The children are from different areas of the world and their heavens reflect their cultures. Mai has a oriental lilt in her voice and from that we deduce she may be Oriental, her heaven contains magnolias, irises, lilies and a pagoda…is that a stereotype? One of the boys, Carlos, is obviously Mexican…and when he leaves his heaven we see the desert, empty and sparse bar a few yellow marigolds and a shadow-casting saguaro…is that stereotypical?
My reasoning for referencing perhaps stereotypical views of a culture is two-fold…it has allowed me to use descriptions to create vivid illustration in the mind of the reader, of something they may feel familiar with, and the writing can enhance their own imaginations. Secondly, my protagonists are young, and young children often recall safe and familiar themes when they are unsure. It is not given in the book if Mai is actually Oriental or not, her description certainly hints that she is, but she may actually have lived in a London council estate for all we know! What is obvious though is that she has created her heaven from things she loves, and we are led to believe these may be cultural things. So as the author, have I slipped into stereotype ground? If so, then that may be due to character authenticity.
When I was young I loved playing with dolls, again stereotypical little girl, dolls and books…I fit a stereotype, but that takes nothing away from the fact that I was still that little girl enjoying her baby dolls and reading books! It didn’t matter to me whether I fit in a box or had a label!
So if my childrens’ heavens appear clichéd or not, it doesn’t matter…we live amongst clichés and stereotypes all the time.
I leave you with Stephen Fry:
‘It is a cliché that most clichés are true,
but then like most clichés, that cliché is untrue.’