I find myself thinking a lot about cliche lately. Cliche is generally something we’re taught to avoid in writing. We don’t want cliched plot or heroes. But every now and then, you find a use for them. In particular, with secondary characters. See, using cliches or stereotypes allows for instant descriptions. You give us these parameters and your reader (or watcher, as the case may be) immediately understand what kind of person you’re dealing with. I don’t advocate this for friends of the heroine or anybody important, but for the random people who dot your setting, like the hopelessly dateless comic book store owner or the stoic, good ol’ boy sheriff, it’s a handy thing to use.
I used this tactic in characterizing the Barbie Squad in Red.
I’ve been regretting it ever since.
I chose to use the Barbie Squad as a quick and dirty example of the kind of crap our heroine had to deal with at school. I even went so far as to have Elodie call them a stereotype. And I was fully okay with this because they were not all that important to the overall story. They were a convenient vehicle to give some information about our heroine. Who is the victim of the bully/mean girls. It did not matter to me or my heroine why Amber felt the need to be such a bitch. It wasn’t relevant to the story. Given that the story was told in first person, Elodie really had no motivation to look any further than that, so she didn’t and the Barbie Squad remained a cliche.
Reader response to this decision has, frankly, shocked me. I’ve been blasted in reviews for resorting to the mean girls stereotype. I was called lazy and, in a few other places, other more insulting terms than that.
Leaving aside how utterly unnecessary the motivations of the mean girls were to the crux of the story, where is all this DEFEND THE CHEERLEADER/MEAN GIRLS coming from? I honestly expected to be earning fans from all the previous mean girl victims who could identify with Elodie. Because, frankly, mean girls exist. Everywhere. They are a stereotype, yes, and certainly they have deeper motivations for their actions in real life, but since when do the victims give a damn what they are? All we cared about was that they were being bullies to US. So, in my mind, it was TOTALLY in character for Elodie, mean girl victim, to look at them as a stereotype.
I won’t be making that mistake again. Ever.
Some of the vitriolic protest to this treatment makes me wonder if the protesters were, themselves, mean girls in their teen years and identified with the wrong character. Because nobody complained about the stereotypical gossipy busybodies. Or the assorted other stereotypes I employed for the tertiary characters I sprinkled throughout the town. Certainly not everyone who had complaints about my use of a stereotype on some unimportant characters do not fit the mold for mean girls. Some of them just wanted better characterization. And had I been writing some kind of teen drama where the point of the story was to find out that the mean girls were simply misunderstood human beings with un-dealt-with rage issues, I’d have gone there. But that wasn’t what the story was about. The story is what it is, and I stand by what I did with it as sound reasoning.
Still, I caution anybody who decides to use stereotypes in their fiction for any reason. Be prepared for reader backlash.