The tricky thing about stereotypes is that you often don’t even realize you’re using them. They’re formed by your surroundings and your general views of the world around you. Logically, it can be easy to understand that not all business men are hard-nosed and not all African Americans live in the ghettos and are associated with gangs. A stock character might be useful in a small role, but when it comes to your more serious, actual characters, the living people who make up your novel, you need to expand them.
Unfortunately, you probably already know that that’s not as simple as it sounds. While first drafting your novel you probably worked hard on your characters. You gave them backgrounds and lives and quirky interests. You have a variety of different kinds of characters with different temperments. How much more distinct can you get without getting off-the-wall bizarre?
There is one trick that I’ve discovered that can help illuminate and eradicate unintentional stereotypes from my writing. Until I started applying it, I didn’t realize how many there were. And here’s how to do it.
Think of a character in your novel. Any character who has at least decent depth and personality will do. Now, give that character as many physical and social changes as possible: gender, age, race, education…. The only thing that you can keep the same is the core of the character–the logic and passions that keep him or her alive. What do you have left?
Perhaps your story won’t really work if your white, middle-class college girl were an ancient Chinese man instead, but if the mysterious professor who leads her class happens to be an Indian woman with a broken accent, you might discover a goldmine of depth that you never could have found otherwise.
Of course, your characters are tied by their backgrounds and formed to some extent by their demographic information. That’s fine. That’s good, and it will make your settings and that character’s interactions with others more interesting. What most writers forget to consider are the non-vital information that they naturally associate with the vital. Learning to see the difference is one of the biggest steps you can take to making your characters more lifelike and more connectable for your readers.