We have been told absolutely, under no circumstances, should we ever use stereotypes in our writing. But in life we stereotype people all the time. From the first moment we see or meet someone, we are stereotyping them. We “size” them up by the clothes they wear, the way they talk, the type of job they have, where they live, the car they drive, even the type of dog they pack around in their Gucci bag. And, ironic as it might seem, people really do fall into stereotypes – all of us. Certain “types” look and act and behave in ways that have become so predictable that a stereotype has developed.
But there are times when stereotyping is exactly what the book doctor ordered.
How can that be, you say? That would be breaking the rules.
Enter: a minor character who is there as part of the scene and who is there to interact with the main character to advance the story or give insights into some aspect of our main character. But this “walk on” character will not take a role beyond that scene. If we stereotype this minor character, he will look and act exactly the way we expect. He will say exactly what we expect him to say. We won’t need to be told much about him because the stereotype will draw the picture for us.
Here are some examples of stereotypes: the chatty hairdresser, the waitress with the perky pink uniform chewing on a wad of bubble gum, the old man in the alley with his bottle of wine, the harried mother in the grocery store with her screaming kids, the biker with his leather jacket and tattoos all over his shaved head, the absent-minded professor with the Einstein hair and bow tie, the gruff rancher walking into the feed store with manure on his boots, the sullen teenage girl ignoring her mother, the jock in the tight T-shirt flirting with the cheerleaders.
We immediately see this people and categorize them into a group that we are comfortable with and understand. There will be no surprises from them. And when the scene is over and they’ve served their purpose, we’ll stash them away to be easily forgotten, which is exactly what we should do.
But stereotyping can be a powerful tool for your main characters too. For example, let’s take the biker with the leather jacket and tattoos all over his shaved head. Let’s show him parking his Harley in the Walgreen’s parking lot, striding uneasily inside and making his way self-consciously back to the pharmacy. Let’s see him asking the pharmacist for a prescription pain medicine called in by his mother’s doctor. Let’s listen to the pharmacist explain to him the dosage and then caution him that he needs to administer it to his mother himself because she might not be “thinking straight.” He hands the medicine to the biker with sympathy on his face and says, “I’m sorry to hear about your mother’s cancer. Tell her I said hello.”
Instantly, the biker has stepped out of stereotype. He’s surprised us, piqued our interest, and has become a main player we want to know more about. He’s not the tough guy we might have thought he was. He has a dying mother and he’s out of his element in dealing with it. We immediately want to know everything about him from his childhood to the present.
So, bottom line, if you want to keep a “walk on” character invisible and forgettable, stick to the stereotype. But if you want to hold onto your reader for the long haul, go ahead and stereotype your main characters, then throw a curve ball (or two or three) and make it work to your advantage.