Here’s a definition:
Stereotype is an oversimplified or simplistic standardized image or characterization; the use of a well-known image or description to evoke commonly held misconceptions, prejudices or biases about a group of people.
Generally it seems to me that — especially for beginning writers — stereotype becomes a problem primarily with secondary characters. Those people who come into the story only briefly, and have little to do with the driving force behind it. This kind of character can be completely invisible:
Marge handed over her fare, and fell back asleep.
Marge doesn’t take note of the conductor collecting train fares, and neither do we, as readers. But secondary characters often have more of a purpose to fill, and we have to see them. This is where stereotype becomes a problem.
Flo not only had the biggest hair on the eastern seaboard, she tended to tight little skirts that showed more cleavage than her low cut blouse. But the real problem was the way gum chewing interfered with her ability to walk from the kitchen to the counter without tripping. For once she managed to put coffee in front of Mikey the cop without spilling it, and then she gave him one of her goddamn-I’m-good-better-get-some-quick smiles, showing off two lipstick smeared teeth.
You can see this character, sure, but she’s a carbon copy of the waitress you’ve seen in a dozen sitcoms or run across in a dozen sloppy novels. So how to avoid this?
Ask yourself some questions:
1. Do we need to see and/or hear this character at all?
2. If so, what will this character contribute?
3. How do I make this character real?
The answer to the last question is the crux of the matter. Really, it all comes down to focusing on detail while avoiding cliche. Here are some examples from writers who really know how to bring a secondary character to (temporary) life:
“And Mrs Miff, the wheezy little pew opener — a mighty dry old lady, sparely dressed, with not an inch of fullness anywhere about her — is also here.” (Dickens, Dombey and Son)
“[Sunny] was in her forties with skin tanned the color and texture of a good cigar, hair that had been bleached to canary yellow frizz, and a two-pack-a-day voice. She was wearing rhinestone earrings, skintight jeans, and she had little palm trees painted on her nails.” (Evanovich, One for the Money)
“Crawford was already talking to the chief deputy, a small, taut man in steel-rimmed glasses and the kind of elastic-sided boots the catalogs called ‘Romeos’.” (Harris, The Silence of the Lambs)
“Then, at a meeting, Petal Bear. Thin, moist, hot. Winked at him.” (Proulx, The Shipping News)
“Near the window a man listened to a radio. His buttery hair swept behind ears. Eyes pinched close, a mustache. A packet of imported dates on his desk. He stood up to shake Quoyle’s hand. Gangled. Plaid bow tie and ratty pullover. The British accent strained through his splayed nose.” (Proulx, The Shipping News)
“Sir George was small and wet and bristling. He had laced leather boots with polished rounded calves, like greaves. He had a many-pocketed shooting jacket, brown, with a flat brown tweed cap. He barked.” (Byatt, Possession)
Here’s a poorly done secondary character. The challenge is to transform him into somebody vivid and memorable in a few short sentences:
The man in the expensive suit gestured with a manicured hand and the chauffeur jumped to open the door for him.