Stereotyping Litter

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

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