I walked to work this morning, along a forested road with encroaching woods and no shoulder. As I walked I listened to returning spring birds and the creeks, and wondered if bears were awake and hungry yet. And then I noticed the litter.
Beer cans and energy drinks.
I realized I had an instant mental image of the type of people who speed down this back road (because back roads have no laws, right?) guzzling and tossing. I could see the beater cars and pickup trucks from which the beer emerged. I could see the fast little cars with fancy hub caps and fins, driven by young men, from which the energy drinks were tossed.
Well, as an aside, since I live near a small town, I’m pretty sure I know the source of several of the beer cans, and he’s usually drifting along on two feet not four wheels. But I digress.
So of course my mind started wandering away from hungry bears to litter. I realized my mental stereotyping would be shocked to see an old pickup with a driver who tossed a Starbucks cup. I’d probably think I’d fallen into a romance story and just been passed by a cowboy with a heart. What if it was a Volvo and they threw out a bottle of Rolling Rock beer? Later I’d walk past that broken beer bottle and picture the local drunk again, not a driver of a nice Volvo.
I realized there are stories that immediately come to mind out of something as simple as tossing a piece of litter from a vehicle. All writers know to use object placement, to use things as a way to illustrate character. But think about how fast and simple something like this could be used to describe a person. Think of the story that you would immediately tell yourself if you saw a SUV drive by with a distraught young mother, tissue in hand, tossing out a baby bottle? Or that young man in his sports car, flying up the mountain pass with a snowboard on the roof of the car, tossing out his mother? Confess, you just laughed.
I have decided that litter is not only too easy to stereotype, but also way too much fun as a source of characterization and story ideas.
I’m going to walk home much slower.
5 thoughts on “Stereotyping Litter”
I love that you got so much out of looking at litter. And that some of it was humorous, considering the awful source. I wonder if people who aren’t compelled to write, see these things and mull them over, too. If so, what do they do with the thoughts? Just wondering.
Ré, I always wonder that too!
I bet even those who don’t write wonder about things like this, but just don’t have anyplace to capture that wondering, like we do in a story structure. But there are non-writers reading this blog so maybe they’ll set us straight!
Stereotypes are so interesting when writing — sometimes they’re useful shorthand, sometimes I like to tweak them just a little, so they’re a little unexpected and yet still recognizable.
I have to watch that a stereotype doesn’t turn into a cliche in my writing. A double-whammy of what not to do! But you’re right, when they are tweaked into originality it can startle a reader out of what they expect. And I do love the humor that can come out of that, too.