My grandma was camp cook in a logging camp and was deservedly famous for her pies. She always asserted that bear lard made the best pie crust. Not just any bear, though. Not one that had been hanging around down by the river and eating fish all summer. It had to be a bear that lived high in the mountains and got fat on berries and roots.
One winter day, a young Indian showed up with a 5 gallon bucket of beautiful white bear fat, suitable to be rendered for lard. Grandma traded a cake, four loaves of bread, and a pan of cinnamon rolls, gave the young man a good dinner and let him spend the night in the kitchen by the wood stove.
This was back when it was against the law to sell alcohol to Indians, because it was believed that it drove them crazy.
No good deed goes unpunished, and Grandma got up the next morning to find that the young man had drunk all her cooking wine, then moved on to the vanilla, almond, and lemon extracts, and passed out sick in her pantry.
I was thinking about telling this story,and wondered about the ethics of it. It's not politically correct as it portrays the Indian as an apparently ungrateful, alcoholic thief. He wasn't. He was grateful, young, and stupid. Teenaged boys do dumb things. Would it change the story markedly to say he was just a young hunter passing through? (Imagine being desperate enough for alcohol to drink lemon extract.)
Stereotypes evolve because we decide that the actions of one person are representative of all the people we file under a particular label. When I was growing up, Mexicans were considered lazy. Now, they are considered the hardest-working laborers you can hire. Neither generalization fits all people with Mexican citizenship or parentage.
So what are the ethics of telling stories? When is the truth unnecessary and pejorative? Part of the reason this story has lasted in the family repertoire is because it perpetuates a stereotype, and my family was bigoted. I was raised to be a bigot and I have to be aware of this when I write. Stereotypes are a useful shorthand to establish character, but is this a shortcut I want to take? Not every character needs to be fully developed. Sometimes, all you needs a sketch, a spear holder, a paunchy southern sheriff in mirrored sunglasses, or a gum snapping bleached-blonde mall-rat in lace mitts and three pounds of makeup. As writers, is it ethical to perpetuate these stereotypes? And if not, how are we going to color our stories' backgrounds?