I have never read a book by Tana French and the first time I saw her name was in the Eagerly Awaited August Books where both Dabney and Lynn indicate that they are looking forward to her new release Broken Harbor. Then while surfing the Web, I came across her name again. She wrote an article for Publishers Weekly outlining her writing tips.
A few of them didn’t resonate, but this one did:
There’s no such thing as ‘men’ or ‘women’. There’s only the individual character you’re writing. One guy emailed me asking me how to write women, and I couldn’t answer, because I had no idea which woman he meant: me? Eleanor of Aquitaine? Lady Gaga? If you’re thinking of ‘men’ or ‘women’ as a monolithic group defined primarily by their sex, then you’re not thinking of them as individuals; so your character isn’t going to come out as an individual, but as a collection of stereotypes. Sure, there are differences between men and women on average – but you’re writing an individual, not an average. If your individual character is chatty on the phone or refuses to ask for directions, that needs to be because of who he or she is, not because of what he or she is. Write the person, not the genitalia.
Since I read contemporary books, I can’t tell you how many times I come across the scenario that women love to shop – usually for shoes or sexy underwear. And, of course, men would rather run over broken glass than step a foot inside a department store. And then there is the best friend of the heroine -a gay guy, who calls everyone sweetie, lives in an immaculate house and never has a hair out of place. These characters are not memorable. And, as a result, many times the book isn’t either.
A few reasons come to mind as to why authors continue to use stereotypes – such as it being a short cut to characterization like the old westerns when the good guy wore a white hat and the bad guy wore a black. Another use is a way to integrate humorous scenarios, and, finally, since it a universal stereotype then it must be true – women love to shop for shoes, and men hate shopping, thus helping the reader identify with the character.
I think what is sad is many authors who use this type of shorthand are really good writers, or they used to be. I have always been sensitive to repetition. I think that is one reason I don’t do well with series books – because invariably the character’s quibbles are repeated in every book – but now I find that I am letting go of some of the authors I have read longest because they are stuck in a rut. I still reach for authors who have a trademark style. However, if they don’t surprise me with characterization, then I expect them to do so with the plot. I don’t believe that I am alone in this. From just reading the boards, I see readers discussing books with unique characters and storylines.
Data about popular books seems to both our enemy and liberator. Publishers recognize trends, and the market immediately seems glutted with that type of book. I can’t tell you how many books that I have seen that appear to be a variation of 50 Shades of Grey but hopefully they will also see that we are not looking so much for a certain type book, but books with unique characters and plots.
There have been several blog written here – one by Blythe and another by Maggie – encouraging readers to send a message with their dollars to publishers that we crave distinct type books. While both Maggie and Blythe encourage readers to either buy or read certain type books – I think there is a missing element: Word of Mouth. Since I tend to overwhelm myself with review books, I can’t often talk about them after reading them. However I admit I have been lazy in posting about other books. That I hope to change. Because I know there is power in this media.
So, what do you think? Are there stereotypes that you love – or that you’d love to never see again? Can you think of authors who follow Ms. French’s advice? Any ideas on ways to get the message to publishers that we want diversity in our characters and plots?
– Leigh AAR