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Stereotypes in Literature: Definition, Use & Examples

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  • 0:03 How Stereotypes Work
  • 1:19 Stereotypes in Literature
  • 2:59 Stereotype Examples
  • 5:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

Stereotypes in literature can help craft a story or steer an audience to a certain perspective. In this lesson, you'll learn more about the uses of stereotypes in literature and explore some examples where they've been used.

How Stereotypes Work

Have you ever heard somebody say one of these lines:

  • ''She can't drive. All women are bad drivers.''
  • ''He's black, so he must be a good athlete.''
  • ''I just won't vote. All politicians are crooked.''

While some women probably are bad drivers and some talented athletes are also of varying races, it seems pretty silly to make broad assumptions about entire genders, races, or groups of people, doesn't it? We've all experienced this in our personal lives somehow; maybe we've even made an assumption about someone based on their nationality, gender, religion, or the color of their skin. These types of broad, over-simplified ideas about groups of people are called stereotypes.

Stereotypes usually involve applying general traits or characteristics to a group of people. Most experts would say that using stereotypes to classify people is both hurtful and harmful; after all, you can seldom use one trait and apply it to everyone in a particular group, right? It's not accurate to say that all blondes are ditzy, because that's simply not true. And, it may hurt a person's feelings or harm your relationships as a result.

However, authors and writers frequently employ stereotypes for a number of reasons. Let's take a look at why.

Stereotypes in Literature

After all we just learned about how stereotypes can be harmful and hurtful, why would writers of literary works choose to implement them in their stories? The answers can be found in a couple of places:

First, they can be used to connect with an audience. By using stereotyped characters, you can create a common ground with your readers. For example, if you identify a character as a computer geek, you've helped to build an image for readers that they can associate that character with. This can also be useful for directing your audience to think about a particular character in a certain way, either positively or negatively.

Stereotypes can also be used in literature to help tell a story. Whether they're a minor or a major character, stereotypes can help an author construct a story. It may help a writer to explain a character's personality or actions or, simply, it may be easier to assign a stereotype to a character to work on developing other pieces of the story more fully.

Finally, stereotypes can be crafted to be broken. Say what? Crafted to be broken? Absolutely. Crafting a perceived stereotype for a character, only to have that character break those stereotypical traits as the story progresses, can create a character that is intriguing to readers. Imagine you're introduced to a goth, punk-type teenage character. You immediately think they're depressed, into heavy metal music, and are troublemakers. Imagine your interest in that character when you find out he or she is a straight-A student who volunteers in his/her spare time. Much more interesting, right?

Now that you've seen some ways that stereotypes can be useful in developing literary characters, let's take a look at a few examples of these types of scenarios in literature.

Stereotype Examples

Keep in mind that stereotypes can be assigned to any number of groups, based on race, gender, religion, or even age. Here are a few popular literary stereotypes:

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