Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Revenge of the Nerd: How To "Show Not Tell" When Stereotypes Are Changing

Probably more than most, those of us who gather here are well too aware of the long lead times from a book’s creation to its bookshelf debut.  What that means for us is lots of teeth gnashing and chocolate consuming, but what it means for the rest of the world is that books are often a step behind of pop culture (excepting the 50 Shades of Gray’s that actually create pop culture moments).  Mediums with faster reaction times, like television, are often responsible for setting the trends that books and movies respond to.

The latest is the reimagining of the classic nerd. Remember the cringe-worthy Erkel? Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles?  Anthony Michael Hall in Breakfast Club?  Anthony Michael Hall in that Bill Gates movie?  (Did that guy get typecast or what?).  But have you noticed that there are very few true dorks in pop culture these days?  Let me amend, there are few nerds who are not completely likeable, accepted and praised for the dorky tendencies.  I’m talking about Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, Zooey Deschenel’s character on New Girl, and Artie on Glee. I’d say the nerds have had their revenge. 

But, as a writer, how do we handle stereotypes being shattered?  Of course we don’t want our characters to be completely cliché (unless we’re aiming for satire in the vein of Mean Girls) but we also need ways to show our readers our character and their possible motivations through actions, dress, accessories, and even meal choices. And for our audiences to “get it” without us telling them, we need for them to have access points.  We need them to understand that when we dress our character in floods and have them wear pocket protectors or cart around an Astrophysics textbook the size of Texas, and compete as a Mathlete, that this guy might not be dating the head cheerleader. Except, as Glee has shown us, that’s now not only entirely possible, but probably even likely.

Our primary audience of teens have grown up seeing, or likely even part of, blended families, gay families, Modern Families.  There’s a New Normal and we need to accept and embrace it in our own writing.  Which beg the questions: when is it our job to perpetuate stereotypes to make our writing accessible, when and how do we respond to shifting cultural changes, and how do we try to impact them ourselves? How are you dealing with stereotypes in your writing?


  1. Good questions Jen. I'm not sure I have the answer on this one, but it's something every writer must ponder in their writing. But let me just say, I love Glee. There I've said it. Proceed.

  2. Maybe the easiest answer is to try to avoid popular stereotypes....easier said than done, I know, but that's all I've got.

  3. I'll admit, I still draw on the stereotypes from my REAL life (i.e. my high school experiences) in my writing.

    When I spend time with teens I find that while fashions have changed (to a new version of what I wore in high school) and social rules have changed (to things we used to talk about idealizing), human nature hasn't changed one bit.

    Those "real" nerds still exist. Geek Chic is something a nearly-nerd embodies. And the most popular girl in school? She's still most likely to date the most popular guy - or the older brother of her best friend.

    There's no doubt stereotypes have changed in the media, and social rights / wrongs have changed. But in my experience, kids still recognize the archetypal characters. Mainly because they still live with them every day.

    They just wear more glitter now. And sometimes drive hybrid cars.

  4. One of the first pieces of writing advice I ever got was "use real people." And even though characters in a book aren't actual walking, talking people, they are still real. The people I knew in junior high and high school weren't stereotypes; I knew cheerleaders who loved to read, jocks who excelled in school, and nerds who were friends with the popular kids. I draw a lot of inspiration from them. I write my characters the way they really are, and I don't even bother with stereotypes. Characters are people, and people aren't stereotypes.