F is for feisty females and other tired stereotypes we can do without

Author: Anne

Date Published: Jun 7th 2017, 10:22pm

This impassioned plea for novelty and innovation was originally written over a year ago. I might add a few more stereotypes and themes to the list of those I am tired of but the message of the blog still holds true.


If I never see the adjective “feisty” applied to a woman again in a book it will be too soon. I also include in this abhorrence the associated descriptions of “spitfire” and “crackerjack” which you see in American novels. It’s not the words particularly that are the problem but the fact that the so-called feisty female is one of those stereotypes which pop up in novels with sad regularity. As soon as our heroine is described in this way you know that she will speak her mind, maybe lose her temper a few times, possibly have red hair and freckles, often be unaware of her own beauty, and usually do a job which is traditionally seen as male. In the end she will be “tamed” or at least change her behaviour because of the love of a kind and understanding man. The one word conjures up all these associated characteristics and acts as a type of shorthand for the reader and the writer – shorthand which is used a lot in genre fiction.

Other stereotypes of which I have had enough include the melancholy detective with a drink problem and a difficult home life. Crime fiction abounds with these men (and sometimes women) to such an extent that you almost expect it when you open a new one. Fantasy novels have a plethora of old, wise men (sometimes women) who bestow their wisdom on the next generation and guide them to use their powers wisely, and there is of course also the associated young adult who is just discovering their powers and has to be guided to fulfil his/her destiny. Women’s fiction has an abundance of women who find themselves divorced or unhappy in their 40s and who then have to find a role for themselves, a job and a new love – there are usually cupcakes, gingerbread or craft activities included in these books.

I read enough books that I recognise these stock characters as soon as I see them and so I have learned to expect the plot developments and devices which usually go with them. Sometimes this can be very comforting – when reading romances you often want a book to develop along traditional paths for example and the bile spewed out on reviewing sites when the author doesn’t provide the anticipated happy ending would definitely put most authors off doing anything innovative. At other times it becomes tiring and disappointing because you can predict where the book is going to go and what the characters are going to do.

A good book it seems to me does something different. Maybe it is an exciting plot point, or an unusual writing style, or a setting which hasn’t been used before – sometimes it is all three. But if a book does something unusual with its plot, writing style or setting it will not succeed if it contains stereotypical characters. Sometimes what makes a book good is the inclusion of un-stereotypical characters or, even better, creating a character which you think fits into a stereotype and then having the author do something different with them.

A novel is essentially a story about people (except for the ones which aren’t, of course, like those about rabbits or elves – although I would argue that they are really about people too). You have to identify with those people, or at least understand them, in order to appreciate the book. For the reader to do this you have to recognise these characters as people, with good and bad habits, interests, reactions and flaws the same as the people with whom we mix in our real lives. Where the author writes to a stereotype and does nothing new with it I always feel that there is something lacking. I might enjoy those books when I read them but they are not the ones that I will read again and again and which have an honoured place on my bookshelves.

I’m looking for the books that don’t have feisty females but have intelligent and complex women; that do without the wise mentor and the young apprentice but find new ways to show people coming to terms with their power and destiny; that aren’t melancholy and drunk but handle their stress in another way; and that have older women who find another way to happiness other than divorce and cupcakes. I’m looking for inventive novels featuring real people with characters I recognise and with whom I want to spend time – it’s always great when I find them.