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When Literary Characters Aren't Stereotypical

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Stereotypes can contain a grain of truth, but they're often pernicious. So it's refreshing when some novels feature a character who breaks ethnic or gender molds.

For instance, Mordecai Richler's rollicking Solomon Gursky Was Here (which I just read) includes a 19th-century Jewish character named Ephraim who's a macho, hard-bitten, frontier type of guy. When he makes his first dramatic appearance in the bitter Canadian cold throwing bear meat to his sled dogs, one thinks more of Jack London than Woody Allen.

Then there's the title character of Junot Diaz's highly original The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, an American nerd of Dominican descent. Not the ethnicity you'd expect to be out in force at the next Star Trek convention.

And there's the Chinese-American servant Lee in John Steinbeck's East of Eden, which is set in the late 1800s/early 1900s. Many servants from that era were of course smarter than they were allowed to show their alleged "betters," but the depth of Lee's intellect and philosophical musings is off the charts.

How about the bold, holds-her-own-with-the-guys Marian Halcombe in Wilkie Collins' stunning mystery The Woman in White? She's hardly the stereotypical female one sees in many other male-authored novels published during the Victorian Age.

And Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews flips a gender stereotype by having a male title character who protects his virginity against female seducers as he overcomes obstacles to be with his true love.

Then there's Colette's Cheri and Terry McMillan's How Stella Got Her Groove Back, in which women are in relationships with men half their age. That's not unheard of, but it's certainly more rare than the older male/much younger female dynamic in many novels -- including classics such as Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and modern fiction such as Jonathan Franzen's Freedom and Marilynne Robinson's Gilead.

Breaking stereotypes doesn't just involve gender or ethnicity.

In Jack London's The Sea-Wolf, for example, the protagonist is a smart but physically weak man named Humphrey van Weyden who is picked up by the brutish Capt. Wolf Larsen after a collision at sea. By the time the book ends, Humphrey ends up being far from the stereotype of a soft intellectual.

Set at around the same time that London's novel was written, E.R. Greenberg's baseball novel The Celebrant features an ardent New York Giants fan who becomes friendly with early-1900s pitching great Christy Mathewson. But -- unlike the typical besotted sports lover -- this immigrant jeweler doesn't fawn over Mathewson, try to pal around him or exploit the relationship in any other way.

And how about wealthy literary creations who do the right thing rather than behave like spoiled brats? One such non-stereotypical character is César Birotteau, who acts with rock-solid integrity after falling into debt. Unlike today's bankers who privatize the gain and socialize the loss, the star of Honore de Balzac's César Birotteau wouldn't dream of being bailed out.

Of course, if authors deliberately avoid stereotypes enough times, that can become stereotypical...

Who are your favorite non-stereotypical literary characters?

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Dave Astor's new book Comic (and Column) Confessional is scheduled to be published this month by Xenos Press.

The part-humorous memoir is about Dave's 25 years at Editor & Publisher magazine covering, interviewing, and meeting notables such as Arianna Huffington, Heloise, Hillary Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King, Martha Stewart, Paul Krugman, Ann Landers, and Abigail Van Buren ("Dear Abby") and notable cartoonists such as Gary Larson ("The Far Side"), Lynn Johnston ("For Better or For Worse"), Mort Walker ("Beetle Bailey"), Charles Schulz ("Peanuts"), Stan Lee ("Spider-Man"), Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Garry Trudeau ("Doonesbury"), Berkeley Breathed ("Bloom County"), Scott Adams ("Dilbert"), Jim Davis ("Garfield"), Milton Caniff ("Terry and the Pirates"/"Steve Canyon"), and Herblock. The book also chronicles changes in the media, discusses personal stuff, and more.

The book will soon be available for online purchase. If you'd like information about ordering a signed copy, contact Dave at dastor@earthlink.net