Well, damn it, I was back but couldn't post last few days as the flu struck. I think it's the flu. Either the flu, the worst goddamn head cold ever, or the zombie apocalypse has come and I'll need to eat brains soon. Whatever it is, I'm out of bed and not all that nauseous, at last!

Something I've been musing over is racial stereotypes in books. See, stuck in bed, I read in between blowing my nose and cursing all viruses. The last two books I re-read were Blue Moon by Lori Handeland and Sizzling Sixteen by Janet Evanovich. Re-reading books you know well is great when you're sick and fuzzy-headed. Blue Moon deals with Ojibwe and Sizzling Sixteen deals with Italian Americans, and both novels rely heavily on stereotypes.

I'm still struggling with whether or not this is good in fiction. See, in reality most people conform to one or two stereotypical traits of their particular gender/creed/nationality/age, but never all. Also, why is it racist to say a Jewish person is cheap but not to say an Irish person drinks too much? Why is it bad to assert a Polish person is stupid but not that a German is Type-A? I sometimes wonder if this is why ethnicity is used in novels, to convey stereotypical attributes.

I can't answer those questions, my best guess is if the stereotype offends a person of that group, it's considered offensive by all if the complaints are loud enough. I'm of Irish descent and people accuse me of drinking too much. It never offends me though I barely drink at all, truth be told. I went two months without alcohol because I was broke and busy, and didn't even notice. I do get offended when people assert I am stupid when I have my natural hair color, blonde. I'm half Swedish, so I am tall, busty, and blonde, so sue me. I'm also a card-carrying member of Mensa, have initials after my name, and prefer intellectual pursuits to fashion. So I myself can't make up my mind about stereotypes.

Looking at real life, comparing it to those two books I re-read, I call to mind a Native American friend and a friend of 100% Sicilian heritage. The stereotypes in the books are that all Native Americans are quiet, deep, and mystical, and Italians are all boisterous, loud, and aggressive. Hmm...in real life I know a few full blooded Native Americans, my actual shaman Steve I know best. Yes, he is a shaman, yes he is smart, but he is the most outgoing wacky person I know. He usually ends  his advice to me with the phrase "get it, idiot?" He means well, he's just a poster boy for Douchebags who claim to have Aspergers. My Sicilian friend is the quietest guy I know, exceedingly passive, a complete wallflower. If I wrote them as characters I might only bring up their ethnicity to disprove stereotypes, though likely I'd leave it alone. One could guess from their last names. 

In fiction I have to wonder why ethnicity matter so much. Could it be that authors use them to describe characteristics? As in, if I read a character is 100% Italian, do I automatically assume she has big hair, too much makeup, and talks loudly as well as often? Er...couldn't the author just say that outright?

Now in both books a character's ethnicity depends on their location. In a place like small town Wisconsin you could be either white and of German descent or Native American, Ojibwe or possibly Potawatomi. Er, a few small clues in physical description or name could tell us. In Trenton, new Jersey you'd likely be either black or white and of Italian descent. Again, a few clues lie in physical description.

Still people feel the need to categorize characters, and I can only guess at their motives. Maybe some want to convey stereotypical attributes, maybe for others it's central to plot. In my own work, I only bring it up when it's central to the plot.

Let's look at Marly Jackson and Michael Finnegan, and I can explain why I specify their heritages. First with Finn, here's a secret: my stories are all connected. In another story, Kate the Kid, there's a character named Finnegan. I included him because I wanted to show a bit of the lives of Irish immigrants in the mid 19th century (and some day I will write his own story, which is planned out). If you've read it, Finnegan, a gunfighter, decides to settle down as a lawman...in Chicago. Fast forward several generations and Michael Finnegan is his descendant. Simple as that. Seriously, I could have cared less if the character was Mexican or Polish. Marly is half Hungarian and half Irish. Why? Because if you've ever seen the combination of black Irish and Hungarian you see how easily the person of that coloring can look Latino. If you've read the Marly Jackson novellas you understand how in #7 Case of the Little Death, that becomes important.

It seems to me authors use ethnicity to a certain end for plot, but I feel most use it to imbue stereotypical traits on a character. I'm a bit more simplistic and mercenarial. Still I wish more authors explained why they brought up a character's ethnicity. If you mention someone is German and then that they are a slob...why bring to mind a stereotype and then disprove it? Is that the point? Why not say so!?

This confusing pontification is partly the result of Nyquil not wearing off yet and also to get you thinking, particularly writers. Both novels I read were saved by the fact that they had multiple characters of the identified ethnic groups representing the full spectrum of human habits, but all too often that doesn't happen. So when you write about a character's ethnicity they may end up speaking for an entire group. What are you saying and why?

Remember, the most important question an author can ask themselves is "so what?"