Those people

by Pari

I’ve been thinking about stereotypes and generalizations. We’re taught that they’re evil, to be avoided. But let’s be honest. We use them every day to categorize our world. They provide a necessary shorthand, without which we’d be mentally paralyzed.

But how do we know when we’re using stereotypes and generalizations in the negative? I’m not talking about the obvious, easy examples. We know they’re bad. It’s the subtle everyday ones that interest me. The thing about them is that they’re frequently only negative in the eyes of the beholder. 

Here’s an example: In one of my books (it’d give too much away to name it) two kids, who’d been abandoned by their birth mother, end up being the bad guys. A few months after the book was published I received an angry email from a reader.

“Adoption has such stigma and challenges already,” she wrote me. “Why did you perpetuate the myth that these kids are problem children in their new homes?”

Short answer? I didn’t.

Longer answer? I wasn’t saying what the reader chose to read into that particular plot point. I know good parents can have rotten children. I knew it at the time I wrote the book too. But the woman my protag cared about didn’t deserve these kids and I didn’t want them to be of her blood.

And now there’s my WIP. It’s a YA novel. The protag is a freshman in high school. She’s a tall girl who has already earned her black belt in Tae Kwon Do. She knows how to take care of herself and is self-confident until kicked in the gut with problems no one should have to face. During her first week at a new girls’ school, the only student who offers her a glimmer of friendship is a “little person.”

Why did I choose to have the tallest kid in the class befriend the smallest? Because that’s how it came out. Both these girls experience being different in a real, physical – visual — way. And that informs who they are and their immediate gravitation toward each other.

And yet . . . I can already see the nasty-grams because the little person in this book isn’t a charmer. The  comments won’t come necessarily from “little people” either. With my Sasha books, especially the last one where I reveal some of Sasha’s own nasty prejudices, I’ve received comments from non-Jews who didn’t like her attitude.

Why is it that people take offense at certain stereotypes and generalizations and not at others? I can guarantee that no one will refuse to buy my future book because the blonde is a bitch. Tall people won’t be pissed that my protag doesn’t always act admirably. Martial artists won’t put me in a choke hold when they see me.

So what gives?

Questions for today:

  1. Can you give an example in your own work where something you wrote with one intention became a hot button for someone else?
  2. Should writers care about those potential hot-buttons? Does it compromise art to consider them?
  3. What are some of the stereotypes and generalizations we use daily?
  4. What are some less common examples that drive you batty? 

Enjoy the video below. It’s a happy stereotype buster:




37 thoughts on “Those people

  1. Barbie

    1. I'm not an author — I wanna be someday.
    2. Honestly, maybe they should somewhat.
    3. Of course, now that I have to think about it, I can't.
    4. Drives me batty? Oh, I have one.

    You know the classic, common in thriller and suspense books, the abused child becomes the serial killer/rapist/abuser? It. Drives. Me. Nuts. Not because it's stereotypical per se, but, because most times I've read it, there was an inclination from the author to lead the reader to feel *sorry* for them, up to some level. And, I can't and I won't, ever, have an ounce of pity for those people. I know the world is not black and white. I'm all for gray and accept that. But I can't conceive, and kind of refuse myself to, how someone who KNOWS the kind of pain they're inflicting on others could do it anyway. "Oh, but it's the only reality they know!" I say "BullS—". LOTS of people are created in bad environments. Lots of people are hurt, abused, whatever. Lots of people have their life perspective altered and damaged from that. And they turn out fine. In fact, they become the kind of person who could NEVER hurt someone else the way they've been hurt. How and why am I supposed to feel sorry for someone, who's free to make their own choices, and makes a choice like that? I don't care how traumatized they are. Life sucks, deal with it. To me, inflicting pain that you don't understand upon others is a horrible, horrible thing. But inflicting pain you DO know? That's just pure evil. Makes it all a million times worse.

  2. PK the Bookeemonster

    Not in books, but in film or tv, drives me crazy when they have a "big name" or "known" actor playing a lesser or supporting role — you know he's the bad guy so it just gets to the point of why bother watching anymore. Too many examples to pick just one though I do have a summer movie in mind that I recently saw.

  3. Cornelia Read

    I've had an interesting response to the drug use in my third novel. A number of emails and blog comments about my protagonist partaking of marijuana throughout the book. What's funny is that while her three housemates (sister, friend, husband) are all stoners, Madeline NEVER joins in. But I guess that's just too subtle, since she's not judgmental about anyone else's doobage.

  4. Debbie

    Perpetuating a myth because of a prejudice is one thing, defining a character is yet another. I think we have to write a character for who they are while asking ourselves how we feel about their beliefs, views. I combed through my MS when finished considering ageism, sexism, treatment of people with disabilities…. I learned surprising things about myself. Characters have to be human and humans are flawed.
    I have a character in my MS who has darker skin, in part because most of what I read leaves me with the impression that the characters are white. Maybe I bring that into what I read. My character is wonderful but his mother lacked confidence and married somebody that didn't treat her well. The grandmother slept around and the grandfather split the scene on two pregnant women. I can see myself taking the fall for the fact that they are minorities but they are all really wonderful people and could just have easily had a different skin colour.
    Readers will make assumptions about us and bring their own bias into what they read but I agree with you, that sometimes it is a concious choice to make a character or their life a certain way for positive reasons.

  5. pari noskin taichert

    First of all, sorry for the nice heavy subject on a Monday morning.

    I've been thinking about that kid at Rutgers who committed suicide last week and it's brought up all kinds of discussion in our family about this.

    Anyway . . .

    I get your point about those characters –or the people like them that exist in the real world — and understand your response. I don't like reading those kinds of books/stories very much. But right now I'm working with a bunch of psychiatrists on a public information campaign and it's making me examine my own biases about mental illness. I AM NOT saying all criminals are mentally ill, but there are those who are. And mental illness is a true disease.

    Is it the predictability that drives you bonkers? Or is it the attempt at manipulation?

  6. pari noskin taichert

    Isn't it interesting that readers make that assumption about Madeline? Do the emails condemn the use? I know that I've received a long, long letter from two respiratory therapists requesting that I make Sasha stop eating whipped cream from the can (even though she definitely isn't interested in the nitrous).

    I'll be curious about the response to your MS when it's published. I bet you're right that you'll take some hits. You're also right that you've got to tell the story the way you see it. Period.

  7. Debbie

    Sorry Pari, I just wanted to add this info on voice. It's rather lengthy so the part that applies to your post can be found with a 'find on this page' under edit on your task bar. Search for "Grace" and read until "high horse". Of course, this is all old news to Rati authors, but it addresses what's beneath the surface of writing. If you have the time, the entire dialogue is worth the read.

  8. Spencer Seidel

    Interesting post!

    Stereotypes in books don't bother me as a reader. What bothers me is when writers go out of their way to create obvious anti-stereotypes in such a way as to be preachy. Nothing screams terrible book like a book written with an obvious agenda!

    As a writer, I don't worry about this too much, although I do try to avoid obvious stereotypes (like the helpless female being rescued by the prince). The problem is that whenever you create something a put it out there (blog comments included), you're bound to piss someone off.

    I can't imagine writing with the constraint of not offending. Seems like that would be impossible in the first place, and boring in the second.

  9. pari noskin taichert

    I liked that excerpt. It started at about p. 19 or 20 and I read to the end. I think Victor is right about your voice being there whether you realize it or not. And I loved the idea that becoming a better writer also made you become a more human one.

    Do you have an example of the anti-stereotype? Please share it with us.
    And you're right, people will take offense at anything. But I do know that sometimes, when I'm writing, I can feel the reactions before they happen. They usually don't stop me from doing whatever the story wants to be, but I'm aware of them.

  10. Barbie

    Pari, I agree on mental illness. And, independently of what that leads them to doing, I feel sorry and sympathize with these people. I understand what it is like to struggle with something you can't control. I think psychiatry is one of the most fascinating fields of medicine, and, if I weren't such a wuss and had the stomach to go through med school, I'd do it. 🙂

  11. Gar Haywood


    I think archetypes are fine; stereotypes are lame and lazy. For me, it's usually pretty easy to tell the difference by the amount of EFFORT an author has put into defining the character. If the character is drawn in the broadest of broad strokes, and all the descriptive tags are on-the-nose familiar — that's stereotype, which is shorthand for a writer mailing it in.


  12. Spencer Seidel

    Hi Pari — I once read a book (I'll leave it at that) that I couldn't finish because the characters were purposely chosen (it seemed to me, anyway) to represent anti-stereotypes. Using the example you sited, it would be as if ALL the adopted characters were saints and ALL the blood relatives were evil. It was so obvious that the author had an agenda, I couldn't suspend disbelief. I came to find out later that the author had actually branded his/her work with the agenda, which I found a big turn off.

    I, like you, am wary of reactions. I'm sure I'll get them when my novel is pub'ed next year–specifically the adoption issue, albeit in a slightly different way. Thick skin, thick skin!


  13. JT Ellison

    Stereotypes – you know, it exists in all areas of society, fictional or otherwise. I was at a festival in Cincinnati this weekend with THE IMMORTALS. Because I was a woman, and because of the title, almost every person new to me thought I was a YA vampire novelist. A simple misconception. When I first got in the industry, people assumed I was a children's author, because I was a woman. It's amazing to me that that's the first line of thinking, from both genders.

    Really great post, Pari.

  14. pari noskin taichert

    I like where this discussion is going.

    PK. Yep.

    I'm learning quite a bit from true experts who are bringing in even stronger experts. So it's a fascinating gig.

    That's a good distinction. I think when I edit my just finished draft (yesterday!!!!) I'll look at the descriptors and see what I was thinking there. I'm now married to this other character and want her in — see her clearly — but need to make sure that I wasn't using any shorthand with her.

    Interesting. I think I understand more of what you're objecting to and if I encountered it in my reading, it'd be a turn off too.
    As to that thick skin? Well, yeah. Sort of. I think it's more important to be emotionally resilient, nimble, as a writer . . . and simply as a human being. So much crap just squirts out of people (sorry for the graphic imagery) that we need to be able to skip quickly out of the way even though it's aimed at us.

    Wow. I would've NEVER thought of you as a children's writer. But as a thriller writer? I wonder if choosing to use initials for your name has helped or hindered those stereotypes?

  15. lil Gluckstern

    I've been a psychotherapist for over 35 years, and have met many people, and there may be "types" and diagnoses, but these people turned out to be unique individuals to me. Every time I think I know who they are, they surprise me. So stereotypes do exist for me, but I am usually wrong in one way or or another.
    By the way, i loved the video. Being of a certain age, it gives me hope.

  16. pari noskin taichert

    Thank you. I think that's the danger of the stereotyping we do . . . it sometimes prevents us from seeing glorious individuality.

    And I'm glad you liked the video. I love it and hope that others have watched it too.

  17. Dudley Forster

    Excellent post Pari – I have been thinking about this issue a lot this week. In my book, a character just walked on stage. I didn’t invite him, he just showed up as my protag’s partner. He’s black, huge in stature, and was a former Pro Bowl defensive end for the Hawks before a vicious clip tore up his knee. He could have gone through rehab and tried to play again, but chose to get his masters in criminal justice and join the SPD. So is having a huge black man be a former football player a sterotype? If someone thinks so, I decided I don’t care. I love this guy and who he is now was formed by his playing ball.

    One stereotype that really bothers me has already been touched on, mental illness. In almost all cases, the person suffering from the mental illness is either a villain or a negative character. Sure, some protags have OCD and more have PTSD. There must be books where mental illness is portrayed as a chronic disease and the person lives with the condition in the same way a diabetic lives with his. I have just never found one. There is also a problem of how antidepressants are portrayed – they are lifestyle not necessary drugs and just mood brighteners.

    Only once have I ever commented on a book regarding this issue. The book is BROKEN written by one of my favorite authors, Karin Slaughter. I made it clear I was not bashing Karin. I love her work and from everything I know about her, she is a very nice person. But the issue needed commenting on and I did so in the discussion area of her FB page. If you care to read it here’s the link:!/topic.php?uid=67883960702&topic=14824

  18. pari noskin taichert

    One of the missions of the new institute for which I'm writing/doing PR is precisely this. To get people to talk about mental illness in much the same way they do diabetes — EXCEPT NOT to blame the victim (which does happen with adult onset diabetes because of its relationship to obesity/lack of exercise).

    I think if I ever write a mentally ill character again, I'm going to be ultra sensitive to some of the unmentioned struggles that character would have to deal with day in and day out.

    So . . . thanks for the comment.

    And, btw, I look forward to meeting your ex-football player turned cop.

  19. Alexandra Sokoloff

    The most violent reaction I ever got to a race issue was when a copyeditor got upset about my having written a character commenting on "a couple of white professors". Apparently an African-American character wasn't supposed to notice that the other characters were indeed, "white".

    Other than that, I get a lot of vehemence about having sex in my thrillers. Always from men. I'm sorry, but as far as I and my characters are concerned, the length of a book is WAY too long to go without sex.

  20. Dudley Forster

    Thanks Pari – What is the name of the organization?

    Alex – What! You involved in a controversy concerning sex. Yeah, liked we'd believe that one. Guys? Guys are complaining? Not to stereotype my sex, but that seems a bit odd.

    JT – A children's writer?! I must live in a bubble because I can't image assuming that a woman author writes children's books just because she is a woman. I can see the whole vampire thing with the book title and the Meyer's hysteria. I suppose you could always give a person who thinks you write children's books a copy of 14 and say here's one of my middle grade books, what do you think? 🙂

    Cornelia – Where are Cheech and Chong when you need them. You could send letters of apology to those readers along with a peace offering of brownies made from Alice's special recipe 😉

  21. Marie-Reine

    Pari, I completely and totally LOVE this post. Thank you!!!!

    I've had AB strangers criticize me when I say something negative about someone ELSE who is a wheelie. A few months ago a woman accosted me at the supermarket for telling a teen-punk-wheelie to fuck off when he scraped the side of my chair. What she said was, "How can you talk like that? You're in a chair, too!"

    I love you, Pari. I love you. I love you. I love you.

    But this woman says it MUCH better than I do:


    And: For your crip-listening pleasure:

  22. Dudley Forster

    There needs to be an edit button on this forum…. you hear that management! Anyway, "image" should be "imagine"

  23. Marie-Reine

    Dudley, that was a brilliant post on Karin Slaughter's FB page. Thank you for passing it along.

  24. Allison Davis

    Pari, I am having some angst about this issue in my new book which focuses on an African American neighborhood in SF destroyed by Redevelopment…so I have some parts that are POV from black characters. There's a lot of racial talk…I'm sure it's going to upset someone because (white) people especially hate to talk about race at all. I'm just going to write it, and let the chips fall whenever.

    The first book I wrote has stereotypes in it…rapid enviromentalists and hard headed timber barons…since it's not published yet, I don't have anyone's rath. Looking forward to it, though.

    The kind of censorship that comes with trying to please everyone can kill the edge in a story…forgetaboutit.

  25. pari noskin taichert

    You crack me up, Alex. Thanks for the laugh. I wonder why guys are so offended by the sex in your books. That seems really weird.

    It's called IDEAS in Psychiatry. I'm including a link to their current website with the caveat that you understand I plan to rewrite the entire thing.

    I'll look at those when I'm done with work. (BTW: I got your email and am delighted!)
    It's funny what we expect of other people. Your comment about the wheelchair reminds me of when I worked with S.E. Asian refugees in Detroit in the mid-1980s. Everyone expected all of them to just "get along" because they were from a similar part of the world. No respect for different cultural traditions or anything.
    Actually, that pretty much sums up U.S. refugee resettlement policy for years after the Vietnam War.

    You should've seen the reaction when I had my Sasha badmouthing other Jewish people because of her own prejudices. Not pretty at all.
    Oh, well. We've got to write what we write.

  26. Marie-Reine

    Thank you, Pari. I am so grateful to whoever recorded your books for the New Mexico library and that Talking Books of Arizona will do an interlibrary loan for me! If anyone here is interested, volunteer readers are always needed for Talking Books for the Blind and Physically Disabled. Loving writers as I do, I buy all the books on CDs I can, but most books are NOT available as audio recordings in any format.

    Anyone who is interested in beatification, if not outright canonization, might volunteer to record your favorite author's unrecorded books at your state's Talking Book library (don't know how it works in countries outside the US). Every state has one. This is Arizona's: . Someone in New Mexico did this for Pari's books… THANK YOU, wonderful person! I am emailing the pope right now!

    Walking is highly overrated,
    Reading a book is not.

  27. Debbie

    In Canada the CNIB records books and has interlibrary loans from the RNIB. Been arguing with the public library to get access to Alex's books and even tried Kindle. Guess what? The free ap won't allow the text to speech component. Better yet-Rant Ahead-Random House has disabled the text to speech component because they feel that this will somehow compete with the audio versions of their books. Which btw, don't often exist and are recorded by professional voice actors. Come on, Jim Dale vs a computer? WTF?–End RAnt! So, RAti anyone willing to send MSWord files if I paid for the book? When I get through my TBR pile, I'm hunting down whatever I can find by Rati authors.
    Pari, sorry about being off topic and congrats on the first draft. That's truely awesome!
    Dudley friend me please so I can read your post. I've been holding out and just signed up for a FB a/c today. Thanks. 🙂

  28. Marie-Reine

    I'll just add that, in fairness to writers and others earning their way with book publication, I believe it might have to do with fairness in payment– that the e-reader voice accessibility feature has been disabled, that is. Most of my friends who cannot read print books, due to visual or other physical disability, really prefer the not-overly-dramatized reading, as it allows a person to be more participant in the reading process, definitely not like watching a film.

  29. gayle

    As a special education teacher, I have real issues with the casual use of the word retard or retarded in a book. I can understand its use more if it's one teenager talking to another in dialog or even name calling if its ignorant or juvenile characters. However if it used by an adult character who obviously has some intelligence, it upsets me. Especially casual use of the word. I remember reading one book that wasn't all that good to begin with and one of the characters used that word. I ground my teeth together and kept reading. At the second use of the word, I uttered an obscenity and threw the book across the room. Then I picked it up and put it in the trash.

    I supposed there will always be something to insult someone. After all you can't please everyone. And we as readers have a right to choose what we can and can't tolerate.

  30. pari noskin taichert

    This discussion concluded in a wonderful way. People teaching each other. Wow.
    Thanks to everyone who participated — and to any latecomers who might have more to add — I've really enjoyed myself today.

  31. Debbie

    I agree that the voice can distract from the story at times and I love hearing an author read her/his own work. But I still have to pay for the Kindle and the author receives his/her royalty. So why can't I listen with the ap without buying the e-reader? And Marie thanks for the link.

  32. Allison Brennan

    Pari, my mom is six feet tall. Her college roommate, who became her best friend, is 4'11". My uncle is 6'6" — his second ex-wife is 5'1". My cousin is 6'8" and his wife is 5'6". At one of my daughter's volleyball games I sat next to the mother of a 4'10" college freshman who was dating a 6'9" college freshman–they were both there. They really were dating.

    Stereotype? Hmm, somehow I think there is more truth is so-called stereotypes than we think.

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