Stereotypes can be helpful when we start thinking about creating characters. But developing characters, giving them unexpected contradictions and conflicts, helps to create characters that are living people, not just types or caricatures.
But what about minor characters? How deeply do peripheral characters have to be imagined? Do all characters have to be rounded?
Flat characters have few traits, all of them predictable, none creating genuine conflicts. Flat characters often boil down to stereotypes: fat, doughnut-eating cop; forgetful professor; lecherous truck driver; … shifty-eyed thief; anorexic model.
Using these prefab characters can give your prose a semblance of humor and quickness, but your story featuring them will have about as much chance of winning a contest as a prefab apartment in a competition of architects. Even more damaging, you will sound like a bigot. As a writer you ought to aspire toward understanding the varieties of human experiences, and bigotry simply means shutting out and insulting a segment of population (and their experiences) by reducing them to flat types.
Discussing how stereotypes or flat characters might be made more round can be interesting, not least because it can open your eyes to how stereotypes are commonly perceived and how perceptions can be subtly altered.
The challenge now is to write your stereotype in a more complicated fashion.
Write a brief scene, around 300–500 words, in which you portray a character in a complex way, going against the usual expectations for such a character.
My scene: The lollipop lady who loves banger racing at the weekends.
Steady rain dropped onto the conservatory roof as Valerie retrieved her fur-lined boots from the rack near the back door. Adjusting her hat so that the yellow peak protected her rimless glasses from the downpour, she grabbed her lollipop stick and strode purposefully down the water-logged path. Winter mornings were the worst, yet the greetings from the little ones would lift her spirits and make it all worthwhile.
Her pitch was only five-hundred yards from her front door and already a few children stood at the side of the road.
“Here she comes,” yelled one of her regulars, a bespectacled boy wearing a Minions high-visibility coverall on top of his duffle coat.
“Morning Mrs. Val,” said the blond-haired twins in a sing-song voice as she neared them.
“Good morning boys and girls. How good of you to wait for me. This road is busier than ever when it’s wet, so well done to you all.”
The five- and six-year-olds from the local primary school beamed at Val and then tugged on the sleeves of their respective parents.
Valerie stepped into the road, her lollipop stick charging ahead as she slowed the traffic to a halt. Tyres slipped in the wet conditions, spraying passers-by with a fine mist of cold, dirty puddle-water. The children laughed, but Val waved a wagging finger at the motorist. “Watch your speed young man,” she shouted over the high-pitched hubbub. “Better to arrive safe and late, than not at all.”
The children joined in with a chorus of “Speed kills, so kill your speed,” and trotted out into the road as soon as Val gave the signal.
Once everyone was safely across, Val waved the kids off and proceeded to cross the road again, halting the cars once again. A familiar face appeared through the window of a trendy Citroen, its yellow colour matching Val’s waterproof coat. “Hey Val,” a forty-something woman shouted, “great weekend at the track I hear.”
“Hello Shelley, yes I set a new lap record for the over-60’s, although my poor Gwinnie suffered a bump or two. She’s in the garage now, having a paint job. She’ll be as good as new come Sunday.”