So, for instance, you give a character bad breath and equally bad teeth, and chances are the reader will identify him as a bad person.
Or give her blonde hair, long legs and a high-pitched giggle, and you’ve got a bimbo. See? There’s even a specific word to match the image! And just one little detail can make a big difference: replace the giggle with a sly, sulky pout and, hey presto, instant High School Queen Bitch!
Then there’s this one: a young black man in a hoody wandering through an expensive, exclusive gated community at night. He’s got his hood up and is walking slowly, muttering to himself. There’s something in his hand. So: burglar, probably on drugs. Possibly armed. Definitely dangerous.
The problem here, of course - as some of you will already have worked out - is that real life doesn’t deal in comfortable stereotypes. And the character I’ve just described wasn’t a character. He was Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old who had every reason to be in the expensive, exclusive gated community, since he was staying with his father who lived there. And he wasn’t actually talking to himself; he was on his phone, using a handsfree headset. And he was walking slowly because…
You know what? I don’t know why he was walking slowly; and actually, it doesn’t matter. At all. There’s no reason anyone should have to explain anything about Trayvon Martin’s behaviour that night. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. Walking slowly isn’t a crime in Florida, where the gated community is; nor is talking on a mobile phone; or carrying a bottle of iced tea and a bag of Skittles; or wearing a hoody; or wearing your hood up; or being young, black and male.
Yet now Trayvon Martin is dead. He’s dead because he fitted another man’s stereotype of villainy; and because that man was licensed to carry a gun.
And because Florida has a law that allows anyone to use deadly force if they believe themselves to be in danger of death or serious injury, the man who shot Trayvon Martin has not been arrested or charged.
Stereotypes. They should come with a warning.
You can read more about the Trayvon Martin case here, and you can sign a petition to have his killer prosecuted here.
John's website is at www.visitingauthor.com.
He's on twitter as @JohnDougherty8.
His latest books include:
Finn MacCool and the Giant's Causeway - a retelling for the Oxford Reading Tree
Bansi O'Hara and the Edges of Hallowe'en
Zeus Sorts It Out - "A sizzling comedy... a blast for 7+" , and one of The Times' Children's Books of 2011, as chosen by Amanda Craig