In “Show – Don’t Tell,” I mentioned that explicit characterization relies on the reader’s personal experiences to fill in the blanks: for example, saying that Grandmother Theresa was a sweet old lady doesn’t actually tell the reader much about the character. Instead, this statement is depending on the reader to associate Grandmother Theresa with any sweet old ladies that reader has met or heard of.
In writing, characters like this are called 2-dimensional (2D) because they are flat and not completely filled out as characters. Since the author has not given the reader a clear picture of what makes Grandmother Theresa an individual, she becomes a stereotype. It’s as if the author grabbed an Old Lady Character from the shelves of stock characters kept in some dusty storage unit and stuck her in the story.
As a rule, this is not the best way to grab your reader and suck them into your book. Stereotypical characters give the impression that the story will be as old and re-used as the characters. It also makes the writer look lazy and uncreative. In fact, I can only think of two situations where using a stereotype *can be both interesting and creative:
The Stock Character Is the Character
Instead of a character who happens to be stereotypical, this character is the embodiment of the stock character (an allegory). This means that the character gets to comment on all the stories it’s been in, all the authors who’ve misused it, how tired it is of playing all the same roles, how it wishes it could do this instead of that, etc.
This type of character generally breaks the fourth wall by knowing that it is a character. This can lead to interesting conversations and situations. It can also make the character more 3D and less stereotypical.
Make It. Then, Break It.
When a character is set up as a stereotype and then acts outside of that stereotype, the character immediately begins to develop depth. If you take a stereotypical meathead muscle character and put him in a situation that requires brains, you create instant interest if he gets out of the situation alive by using his wits (he has wits?!). That means he has secrets and isn’t exactly who the reader thought he was. Those secrets can help pull the reader back into the story.
A few quick caveats: if you break stereotype, you have to follow through and develop the new aspect of the character further. There should also be some events or comments earlier in the story that either hint that this is possible or mean more once the secret is known. The farther along the story is when the character breaks stereotype, the more important it is to have those hints.
There are also limits on what characters this can work with. If you want to do this with the main character, the break needs to happen almost immediately. The longer you wait to break the stereotype, the more likely you are to lose the readers. For a side character to do this late in the story, there needs to be a reason it hasn’t come up before (for example, the character is mistrustful and secretive. Or it’s a new character. Or it’s a character the main character hasn’t interacted with much).
With either of these methods, the same rules for plot, character, and setting apply that would be needed for regular characters. Using stereotypes like this is more likely to complicate your story rather than simplify it; however, it can be a way to add interest or provide opportunities to comment on the status quo.
*I say “can” because execution is everything. Using these methods successfully is neither simple nor especially easy. If you’re looking for an easy out to successful writing, it might be better to consider a different field.