Hate stereotypical characters? Don’t! They give a lot of great clues about humanity. Why do people use stereotypes? How do they get developed? Stereotypes tend to be cultural, religious, or sexual in nature, and they often develop through the need of human beings to order everything we perceive in the world.
I remember the first time said, “People shouldn’t judge” in university. It confused me. Part of the human experience is judging. I judge the floor to beneath my feet. I judge that glass of ice water to be half full. I judge the sun is about 30 minutes from setting. Judgements are so inherent in our experience of being human that it’s impossible not to judge. I think the truth is that while people say no one should judge, they truly mean, people shouldn’t be judgemental or judge others too harshly. A judgement turns effectively into a stereotype when someone judges someone or something as a “type”. The judgement because prejudice when they judge or stereotype despite conflicting and additional information provided.
And this is where the writer has a good opportunity. You should use stereotypical characters for a couple of reasons.
- Stereotypes are short hands for one-off characters. Is your main character getting coffee from a random barista? Are they passing a crime scene in the street and see a non-descript police office cordoning off the area with police tape? Perhaps there’s a random neighbour in a hood where the protagonist never goes looking out the window. Extremely minor characters that help press the plot along or add a background setting can be flattened to help provide easy understanding about a situation. Let’s be honest. Unless those characters above have important parts in the story, they can and should remain somewhat faceless so as to “colour and texture” to a scene but not specifics. A hippy barista can provide a sense of comfort/discomfort in the coffee shop for the protagonist. A straight-laced square-jawed cop at a crime scene can underline how serious the crime is. A nosey neighbour looking out the window at the opportune time says something about the community. In the end, if you’re giving the minor character more things to say than just basic responses to your protagonist, a stereotypic sketch can get the point across.
- How about dimensionalizing your stereotype? Taking a stereotype and turning it on its head in one way or another provides a really strong depth to your character. For example consider:
- the bullying headmaster with a tender sentimental side
- the meticulous manager who lives in a messy house
- the shy librarian who goes bungee-jumping
- the habitual flirt who avoids relationships.
Fantastic characters are built with contradictions. Go out there and be contrary with your stereotypes!