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On stereotypes

June 11, 2012

When I came upon this picture recently, I knew it would be appropriate fodder for a blog post. After all, one of the things we have to strive for as writers is avoiding cliches, which make our writing stale and predictable. But the picture’s heavy-handed approach made me wince. It’s annoying in its awkwardness.

I’ll start by admitting a bias–I’m not a fan of body art (known in my days as tattoos). My aversion runs strong enough that I decided not to get a Tough Mudder tattoo that would save me a boatload of money registering for this year’s event.

The problem with the picture above is the context in the view to the left versus the view to the right. People who look like the guy on the left aren’t typically considered surgeons who can save your life. When you think of a surgeon, the image of arm-length tattoos, wife-beaters, and jeans with keys hanging off them. If they were, he’d be wearing the same clothes on the right, in his professional setting. Instead, he’s wearing a white lab coat, tie and dress shirt, and sleeves long enough to cover all the tattoos. His profession more or less demands that he not present his body art in professional situations. If he showed up for a consultation that way, even the most open-minded people would find a second opinion.

In other words, if I’m writing a heart surgeon, I’m probably not going to lead with his extensive collection of tattoos and selection of casual wear. When an attempt to fight a cliche because so strained that it’s just as awkward and distracting as the cliche itself (see picture above), you haven’t advanced anything. Character traits should build the story and add to its depth and richness, not take away from it.

Is it impossible to build a character who’s a successful surgeon and looks like the guy on the left in his off hours? Absolutely not. But if his off-hours attempts to look like he might kick your ass don’t add to the story, they’re largely irrelevant.

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