In real life, stereotypes can be a real problem. After all, people are much more complex than a stereotype would have us believe. But it is interesting to see how certain types of fictional characters fit (or at least come close to) some of the stereotypes we may have in our minds. Of course, the best fictional characters have some depth, but they still sometimes do what you might call stereotypical things.
For example, one of the enduring stereotypes is the ‘cop’s diet’ of unhealthy food and bad coffee (hence, the ‘photo). There are exceptions (I’m looking at you, Martin Walker’s Bruno Courrèges), but there are plenty of fictional police detectives who eat their share of pizza, fast food burgers, or pub grub. Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel comes to mind right away, but he’s far from the only one. There are a number of police procedurals that include scenes where the detectives eat hastily grabbed Tim Hortons, McDonald’s, or street food. In a way, one can see how that stereotype started. Cops are very busy as a rule, and often have unusual schedules. They don’t always have time to sit down to meals. But they have to eat, like we all do. And cops do get used to unhealthy food. In fact, Martin Edwards’ Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team are not exactly happy when Assistant Chief Constable Lauren Self decides to pursue a healthy eating initiative. The food the team is accustomed to is replaced with healthier food, and it is not popular.
Another stereotype that’s persisted is the temperamental artist. There are many, many artists who aren’t particularly temperamental (for instance, Sulari Gentill’s Edna Higgins). But that stereotype is woven throughout crime fiction. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Hercule Poirot is persuaded to investigate the sixteen-year-old murder of famous artist Amyas Crale. As he speaks to the five people who were present that day, he learns about Crale. It seems he was temperamental, and a few people even excuse his occasional temper outbursts (and his liaisons with women) on the grounds of his artistic personality. In a sense, you could say people hold him to a different standard because, ‘well, he’s an artist, and you know how they are.’
The stereotype (or is it even stock character) of the ruthless business executive has also been a part of crime fiction for a long time. In some crime novels, those characters are the ‘bad guys’ because their companies pollute, or in other ways damage the environment. For instance, in Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly, we meet Giovanni De Cal, who owns one of Venice’s glass blowing factories. He’s not evil, but when his son-in-law joins a protest against the industry, he also does nothing to help him. The glass blowing companies are believed to be illegally disposing of toxic chemicals, and De Cal does not want the industry threatened by government investigation, or hampered by government regulation. Some of Leon’s other Commissario Guido Brunetti novels also feature business leaders who bribe (or are bribed), who put profit ahead of human well-being, and so on. And she’s not the only author, by any means, who’s created characters like that.
There’s also the computer nerd/gamer ‘type:’ introverted, socially awkward, brilliant with technology, and living on a diet of microwaved meals (or pizza) and energy drinks. There’s a really clear example of this type of character in Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series. Chapman is a Melbourne baker who lives and has her shop in a large Roman-style building called Insula. Also in the building live three young men called The Lone Gunmen, who have a business called Nerds Inc. They are computer geniuses and gamers who are rarely seen in public, although they have a business fixing computer problems and solving other technical issues. Their diet is…not exactly healthy, and they don’t mix socially. But more than once, they help Corinna solve mysteries. She helps them as well. There are other examples of this sort of character, too (right, fans of Val McDermid’s Tony Hill?). But, of course, this is a ‘type;’ there are plenty of fictional computer experts/ gamers who don’t fit the type.
The rich playboy is another stereotyped sort of character. It’s usually a young man with a lot of money and often a spoiled upbringing. Sometimes these characters are sympathetic, especially if they’re the ‘heart of gold’ type. Other times, they’re portrayed as selfish, manipulative, and ego driven. Either way, they live in a privileged world. There’s an example of this type in Ellery Queen’s The Last Woman in His Life. As the story begins, Queen has been invited for a getaway at the home of John Levering Benedict III, usually known as Benny. Benny is a jet setter with three ex-wives and plenty of women interested in becoming Wife Number Four. He’s got plenty of money and goes to the finer places in the world. Queen is hoping the weekend will be a quiet time for him to get some writing done, but it doesn’t turn out that way. All of Benny’s ex-wives, plus his lawyer and his lawyer’s secretary, are visiting, staying in the main house while Queen occupies the guest house. One night, Queen gets a frantic call from Benny, who says that he’s been murdered. Queen rushes over to the main house, but it’s too late: Benny has died of blunt force trauma. The only clues are a gown, a pair of gloves, and a wig. Each belongs to a different woman, though, so Queen will have a lot of work to do to find out who the killer is.
Stereotypes can be limiting, even dangerous. But they persist, and we see them play out in crime fiction. Which have you noticed?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from REO Speedwagon’s Don’t Let Him Go.
12 thoughts on “So You Think, Girl, That You’ve Got Him All Figured Out*”
I try to think outside the box with my characters
I’m glad, Paula. I think that makes for the most interesting characters.
Interesting, Margot. There are definitely cliches and stereotypes in crime fiction, and although I guess it’s best to avoid them if you can, sometimes they can be useful shorthand in portraying a character if there isn’t much time to get them across to the reader!
Thanks, KBR. You have a well-taken point, too, about the use of certain stereotypes. As you say, it’s best to avoid them, but they do help provide an effective way to depict a character. That’s especially true, I would imagine, in shorter novels and short stories. Even in longer novels, it can be helpful!
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I have been saying this for years, but I really need to try Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series. I think I would enjoy it.
Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs is now one of my favorite mysteries, even though I resisted it at first because I did not like the title. Very silly of me. I have never cared for Christie’s use of nursery rhymes in her novels, but in the end I also liked A Pocket Full of Rye very much too.
I really do think you’d like the Corinna Chapman novels, Tracy. I like their wit, and I very much like Corinna Chapman as a character.
And as for Five Little Pigs, I definitely think it’s one of Christie’s better novels, so I’m glad you like it so much. It is interesting, isn’t it, how titles can lead a reader in one direction or another. If you’re not fond of the nursery rhyme theme in some of Christie’s titles, I can see how you’d hesitate at this one at first. And I liked A Pocketful of Rye, too.
As a reader I do find stereotypes slightly annoying ‘but’ they exist for a reason and that’s because that’s often how people are. I’ve reached an age now where I recognise ‘types’ in people when I meet them. I know it’s wrong to jump to conclusions but I find myself thinking, ‘Wow, I thought that kind of attitude died out 20 years ago!’ I liked your ‘Cops and their bad diets’ example as it made me think of the Boston police characters in the TV series Rizzoli and Isles. There was a healthy eating drive in one episode and it was hilarious. And I vividly remember Andy Dalziel and the looks Peter Pascoe used to give him as he was eating junk food not terribly elegantly.
That’s the thing about stereotypes, isn’t it, Cath. Making assumptions is wrong, as you say, and yet, they persist, and some of them, like cops and their bad diets, show up a lot in crime fiction. I’m really glad you mentioned Rizzoli and Isles. I can well imagine the result of that healthy eating initiative! And your comment about Dalziel and Pascoe made me laugh; Dalziel is definitely not one to opt for healthy greens and grains, is he? You’re right, too: elegance is not Dalziel’s strength.
I think one of the newer stereotypes I’ve noticed is that of a cop with a twisted, tortured psyche who’s able to figure out how serial killers work and catch them. An example is the show Luther, and yes, The Fall too.
You make a well-taken point, OP. And Luther is a really strong example of the sort of cop you have in mind. I wonder if we’re seeing more of that sort of character because more police characters are being portrayed has having personal demons? Either way, it’s an interesting thought, so thanks.
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Excellent article by the way.
Thanks very much, OP.
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