I have often heard friends and fellow writers excuse stereotypes in their writing by saying "it serves the story." It perplexes me when I hear someone say this. Why? Stories are incredibly malleable. There's never an excuse to fix a bad stereotype because you feel the story is constraining you.
The stereotypes sometimes fall along gender lines. More often than not, it falls along a racial line. We've all heard casual conversations or seen internet comments where someone tears down a woman because of she's being hysterical or emotional. Or a lazy piece of writing that includes only a single character who is a person of color (POC), only to make that character a drug lord, car jacker, thief, etc. Or the "magical negro" to the opposite extreme--a character who is all powerful, but who lacks his/her own character development and only exists to assist the white protagonist. The stereotypes are too numerous to list: the Indian doctor, the Asian computer tech, the Hispanic maid, the gay hair dresser... And of course, in fantasy literature, there's the dark-skinned savages accustomed to rape and violence. The point is... these are all cultural stereotypes, and it's not just lazy writing. It's bad writing.
But to come back to the point: why is it wrong to say "it serves the story"? In short, the story is what you make it. Unwillingness to change a stereotypical feature of a story shows a lack of imagination. If you or a beta reader of your manuscript discovers a stereotype, why not brainstorm ways in which it can be altered? Treat it like a writing exercise.
Here's an example:
In my current writing project, I had a character become part of an illicit drug trade in order to spy upon a military camp. He was an educated man, a naturalist by profession, and he came from a wealthy and stable family. It fit the story well. That's why I wrote it! But then I realized I unwittingly described a stereotype. Why? He's a central character to the novel, but he's also black-skinned. I just made my character into the "Black drug dealer." In my defense, I would have written this the same if he were a white character. But having discovered the stereotype, I thought it best to change it. When some of my alpha readers found out I planned to change it, they begged me not to do so, arguing that "it serves the story." But in the end, it's just as easy to make him a medical professional to gain access to a military camp. This change results in different moral quandaries, but I argue it's a necessary change. But why?
My alpha readers argued avoiding a stereotype is just PC garbage. But I argue, saying something is politically correct is just a lazy way of refuting something without giving it consideration. It's really no more than an ad hominem attack of sorts. I want to create art that will be accessible to a wide range of people, rather than just WASPS. If I promulgate racial, cultural, or gender stereotypes, I'm basically telling readers that pick up my writing: this book is not for you.
In my next post, I'll talk about representation in fiction, and why it's important for authors to consider.