Friday, August 13, 2010

Stereo Types ; )

Well-written crime fiction has a logic and a pattern to it. Of course, a solid crime fiction novel also has surprises and plot twists, but crime fiction fans want their stories to make sense. Even stories that make use of the paranormal, the absurd, or something else outside the realm of “normal” have a logic to them, so that the pieces of the story fit together. Crime fiction fans also want their authors to “play fair” with them. That is, they want the chance to try to solve the mystery, find the culprit, or track down the spy, and they want the clues they need to do that. One of the real pet peeves that crime fiction fans have is when the author “holds out” on them and doesn’t provide information that’s vital for understanding the story. That’s when the reader thinks, “Well, if I’d known that, it would have made all the difference.” Part of making a story believable and logical is creating a setting and characters that make sense for the reader. Sometimes, that’s most easily done when some of the minor characters are stereotyped. I don’t mean “stereotyped” in the ugly, negative sense that word often carries. By “stereotyped,” I mean characters who behave as we would expect them to behave and settings in which things happen as we might expect them to happen.

For instance, several of Agatha Christie’s novels feature single or widowed women who keep house for their adult brothers. Some examples are Caroline Sheppard in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Elspeth McKay in Hallowe’en Party, Georgina Morley in One,Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death) and Edith Waterhouse in The Clocks. In many ways, these women are stereotypical. They’re no-nonsense types with a solid core to them. They’re sometimes brusque on the surface, but they are not unkind – in fact, sometimes, it’s quite the opposite. They take a keen interest in the goings-on around them, and they fuss over the brothers for whom they keep house. In none of these novels do we learn an awful lot about the “widowed/spinster sister” character. So in that sense, she is stereotyped. But she serves a vital purpose. Crime fiction readers know that this character is likely to know at least some of the local gossip, so the sleuth is likely to find out at least some interesting information from her. This sort of character also gives us some insight into her brother, and that can be crucial, too. You might even say that we need this character to be at least somewhat stereotyped, so that we know what to expect from her.

Another “type” we see a lot in crime fiction is the gangster/thug. One example that springs to my mind is Morris Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty, whom we meet in Ian Rankn’s John Rebus series. Cafferty is a local crime boss who doesn’t stick at whatever illegal activity is necessary to further his interests. And then there are the Russian gangsters who play a role in Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors when the word gets out that a murdered former politician’s memoirs may be a little too informative. They cross paths – painfully – with Australian Federal Police Officer Brad Chen when he tries to solve the mystery of who committed the murder. There are dozens of other crime fiction novels where gangsters and thugs play a role. When they appear in a book, we don’t expect them to turn out to be kind, compassionate people (although they may not be wholly nasty). Gangsters commit crimes, often for money. They hurt and sometimes kill people. A gangster who turned out to be a really kind, sweet person – especially all of a sudden – would probably unsettle the reader. Readers might think, “That makes no sense! No gangster would behave that way at all.” In fact, a character who acted that, well, out of character would likely be off-putting.

There are lots of other stereotyped characters in crime fiction; I’ll just mention one more: the journalist/reporter. Whenever there’s a major crime, reporters want as much information as possible, because they want their stories published. We see reporters in minor roles in several Agatha Christie novels (Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) comes to my mind right away). There are also reporters in several of Mark Richard Zubro’s Paul Turner/Buck Fenwick novels, and in several of Robin Cook’s thrillers. I’ve got one in my own Publish or Perish. There are, of course, many other examples of novels where reporters are minor characters. We expect reporters to be inquisitive, even challenging. We expect them to follow leads, be comfortable talking to people, and not be easily turned away. After all, they’re supposed to get stories. Murder is news, so it makes sense that a reporter would act in a certain way when there’s a murder. Again, if a reporter who’s a minor character didn’t behave that way, we’d wonder why. Readers could very easily think that a reporter who behaved very differently from what we expected wasn’t a well-drawn character.

What about settings? Crime fiction fans want settings to be believable and make sense, too. For instance, many of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories take place in small villages or towns. The small-town setting has certain characteristics that we expect, and readers would probably be disconcerted, if not downright put off, if there weren’t at least some stereotyped small-town features. For instance, in many small towns and villages, especially those that are not close to cities, people tend to know each other. They may not know everything, but people do know one another. In fact, when murders take place in such a setting, the sleuth uses that fact, and the reality of small-town gossip, to find out information about the murder s/he’s investigating. It would be unusual – even strange – for a character to live, say, next door to another character and know absolutely nothing about that character.

There’s also a certain kind of murder we’ve come to expect in a small-town or village setting. For example, it would take explaining and lots of backstory for readers to believe a gang-related drive-by shooting in a village. Of course, that doesn’t mean that people who live in small towns and villages don’t commit murder; they do. They certainly do in crime fiction. But the sort of murder that we find in the small town or village needs to make sense given the setting.

As another example, Jassy MacKenzie’s sleuth Jade de Jong lives and works in South Africa. Her South Africa is a violent place, where those with any means at all have to take all sorts of security precautions. For instance, there are barbed-wire and electrical fences around homes, guard dogs, and lots of other security features. Does this mean that all of South Africa (or even all of Johannesburg) is terribly violent? I don’t think so. Rather, this setting is the right backdrop for the kind of sleuth de Jong is, and the kind of crimes she investigates. In Random Violence, for instance, de Jong and Officer David Patel investigate several seemingly unrelated brutal killings. The nature of those killings, and the reasons for them, only make sense in a violent place. So even if not every section of Johannesburg is as violent as it’s portrayed in this novel, we need to have a “snapshot” of a violent setting in order for the story to really make sense.

Does this mean that everything in crime fiction stories has to be stereotyped? Of course not. Stereotypes can be boring. Crime fiction fans delight in sleuths and other major characters who aren’t “typical” and who have depths and layers to them. Well-written crime fiction also has surprises, twists and turns, clues and “red herrings,” so that something that seems “typical” may not be. But in those cases, the talented author gives the reader some sort of warning that all is not as it seems; in other words, the author “plays fair.” The warnings may be subtle but they’re there. If the rest of the story – the minor characters, the setting, the match of setting to murder – is stereotypical, this can anchor the reader in place, time and context, so that the murder or other crime makes sense.

What do you think? Are too many crime fiction characters stereotyped? Are places painted with too broad a brushstroke?

Thanks to Maxine at Petrona for the inspiration!


  1. This is great information. Thanks so much.

    It's true not only do the stereotypical characters serve a logical purpose, there is comfort in our knowledge that we "know" something about the story already because of these characters. What's fun is when we don't know what we think we know and are fooled a little--in a good way.


  2. Teresa - Thanks for the kind words. You're absolutely right that we do feel a sense of comfort, if you will, and certainly of being rooted in a sense of time and place, etc. Those stereotypes can help us understand a story. And of course, it is fun when the author uses them to fool us, too; if the author "plays fair."

  3. yes, too many stereotypes. So you try to write the opposite and it comes ocross too forced. What is the answer? i don't know. but, personally, I hate the journalist sterotype, as I am one!

    Southern City Mysteries

  4. Sometimes. If a girl goes missing, often times she's in a relationship where he boyfriend beats her up or she's having an affair.

    I'm reading a book right now with a reporter and although he at first sounded cliche, he turned out to be quite different. So I guess not cliche.


  5. Michele - You're so right; it's a very tough balance, isn't it? On one hand, as you say, going against a stereotype can seem forced. Giving into it can really weaken a story. It's just a very delicate balance. And I don't blame you for truly disliking a stereotype if you know the truth about what it's like to be a journalist.

    Clarissa - You make an interesting point. Some stereotypes seem to have a grain of truth to them. Others really are overdone. I think when that happens, the book feels very stale, so I'm glad that the book you're reading right now doesn't completely give way to those stereotypes.

  6. Stereotypes are needed to a point. I guess it's when the author pushes the stereotype too much one way or the other that it doesn't work well. It's like the journalist you pointed out. If they didn't ask the questions and 'do their job' so to speak, why even include them in the story? They would be a character that serves no purpose. But if they 'do their work' the author can slip a clue in for the reader. Very intriguing post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  7. Mason - Thank you : ). You're right, too, that if a character like a journalist or another minor character doesn't act the way we expect someone like that to act, we do wonder what that person is doing in the novel. Why have that person as a character? On the other hand, stereotypes can be limiting, boring and dangerous. So as you say, pushing them too far doesn't work, either. It's a delicate balance.

  8. I can see similarities that may or may not be classified as stereotypes. And this may not be a bad thing. Readers expect a certain character to be "molded" a particular way. but I am tired of the reading about the grouchy divorced cynical PI or detective who needs to shed weight and eats crappy food and lives in a dumpy apartment.

    Stephen Tremp

  9. Stephen - I had to laugh when I read your description of the "typical" PI or police sleuth. Those "types" can get tiresome, especially if there's nothing about the character that makes her or him unique. I, too, like my sleuths to be at least a little set apart from the others. As you say, though, crime fiction fans really do want some of their expectations fulfilled. Some "molded" characters serve to anchor a story and give the reader a sense of place, time, and context. That can be a very good thing.

  10. The problem is that there are a lot of similar people in real life. And they sometimes come across as stereotypes in a story. Just like real people use cliches all the time in their speech, but writers can only do it within dialog and then only occasionally. Writer have to make a more interesting world than the real one sometimes.

  11. Patti - Oh, you put that very well! Writers do have to make the world more interesting than it is in real life. I also like the point you make about there being similar types of people. That's how Agatha Christie's Miss Marple knows as much as she knows about human nature. She's seen all kinds of different people in her life, and the same types pop up again. Really interesting point...

  12. This is an interesting take on stereotypes. I use a couple of gangsters in my novel, who behave just like we'd expect gangsters to behave. It hadn't dawned on me till this post quite how stereotypical they are. May have to go back and tweak them a little.

    Nice to see you reviewing the work of another South African mystery writer! I confess I'd never heard of Jassy Mackenzie till now, but I'm going to seek her out.