Appealing to a stereotype

Often in a story you have need of a walk-on or cameo type character for a particular purpose - perhaps the librarian at the local library needs to help your lead character find a tome of ancient evil or maybe the desk sergeant at the police station is booking your lead character for a crime she almost didn't commit.

The trouble is, you don't want to spend too long building up these bit-part characters but you do want them to be interesting and memorable. So you need a way to conjure up the general demeanour and aspect of the character in a few words rather than rambling on for a two or three paragraphs describing all the garments they are wearing.

One way to cover a lot of ground quickly is to appeal to a stereotype. 

Wait. What does that mean?

"Pleeeease, oh mighty stereotype, make my unimportant character seem interesting..."

Well, no.

What we mean is just bring to mind a shared concept which helps your reader fill in all the details from all the other, similar characters they will have seen in movies and read about in other books.
How about our example of the sergeant at the police station? Well, chances are that you've already got some concepts in your mind about the sergeant just from the job description. But what stereotypes can we hook into here? 

The gruff, angry sergeant with a caffeine drip, pile of unfiled paperwork and a face like a bulldog? He hasn't got time to be dealing with lowlife like you - get in a cell and be quick about it.
The fat, bumbling, rosy-cheeked sergeant with a happy, if slightly gin soaked smile. Oh dear. Been a naughty boy have we? Ah well, nothing that you can't sleep off in a holding cell, my old chum!

But.... stereotypes are bad, aren't they?

Well, often they are, yes. Characters that are nothing but a stereotype are nearly always flat, uninteresting and frankly rather forgettable.  But there's something we can do about that. Adding a twist of lime!

Once you've introduced a stereotype based character, always add at least one feature that breaks the stereotype. Use something about that character that makes this character different enough that the stereotype doesn't fit them anymore.  That way you get all the benefits of using the stereotype, namely getting a lot of information about the character across quickly, without actually using a character that is stereotypical. 

So, the sergeant...

What happens if you give the grumpy sergeant a frustrating stammer? Or how about if after showing all the demeanour of the typical "Grumpy Sergeant" they turn out to be soft spoken and actually quite nice?

What happens if the friendly, bumbling sergeant becomes totally anal retentive about procedure and paperwork? What if you give someone who looks like a "Bumbling Sergeant" the personality of the "Grumpy Sergeant?"

The trick is to just play about with it to find something that makes the character step away from the stereotype and stick in the reader's mind.

So next time you're needing a generic bit-part person for your scene, don't write a stereotypical character - but appeal to a stereotype as a shorthand for quickly painting the basics - then add a twist of lime to give the spark of life...

As well as character, you need situation, objective and two more major story elements - read more here.