When starting a writing project, there are lots of things to think about, but one of the most important is almost always going to be the characters.
I tend to write mainstream fiction, which means the vast majority of my characters are human beings, people you might meet in the street. Occasionally I might throw in a pet, or I might set the story in a place or time I’m less familiar with, but generally speaking, these kinds of stories don’t take as much world-building it would to write a sci-fi or fantasy piece. To me, that makes it easier, but in some ways it also adds a challenge. So many novels, plays, poems and scripts have been written about human beings, that it’s easy to slip into something that’s been done before or even that’s become hackneyed and stereotyped.
If I say “Priest”, you probably immediately assume male, Irish, Roman Catholic and possibly also quiet, gay… I could go on. If I say “Firefighter”, the ladies amongst you are already swooning. And if I say “Secretary”, you’ve almost certainly got a woman of a certain age wearing spectacles and a staid skirt and cardigan combo (or else a hot young thing distracting her middle-aged boss). Even more than names, we use job titles as a shorthand, and to some extent it’s useful and necessary. But when these characters become stereotypes, it feel to the reader as though we are cheating.
This is usually more of a problem with side characters than the main ones. We put a lot of time and effort into fleshing out main characters, showing them in different environments and with different moods and personality traits. But with the people they meet, we are often just looking for a cameo or a trigger to the next plot point. And this is where we need to guard against stereotypes, but without distracting readers in a long and complicated ramble about how this priest is in fact a born-again Muslim woman from Tehran, who saw the light, converted to Greek Orthodoxy, and likes nothing more than to sing “It’s Raining Men” from the pulpit on Sundays!
Like everything in life, characterisation is a balancing act – adding a single unusual quirk to our side characters can be enough to save them from being cardboard cut outs, and finding that quirk can be hard, but it can also be fun. It can also, mercifully, be saved for the editing process if something doesn’t jump out straight away, which allows the main story to flow, without getting bogged down in the fact that, for now, the secretary is wearing a twin set and glasses, with a pencil twisted efficiently into her bun.