A post over at Fantasy Faction.
“What is the difference between a great character and a placeholder? Why is one warrior or wizard better than the other? They might serve exactly the same purpose in the novel, but one is clearly superior. Your grey-bearded magic user with the impractical hat just can’t compare with the scarred conjuror addicted to demon blood. One is a well developed protagonist, while the other is a cardboard cut-out from any generic fantasy novel.”
I would add: Yes, but sometimes a stock character is kind of what you want for a particular story. Tolkien gets criticized for stereotypical characters, but a) he was for all intents and purposes the original, and b) characterization was not the point of The Lord of the Rings. That is a work that is all about the world — very much venue-driven rather than character-driven. It’s a mark of greatness that I love the work anyway, since I am a character reader. Though it’s true I am also all about setting and venue, much more so than a lot of readers.
There are other situations where you might want one or more stereotypical characters: where you are focusing on plot (this doesn’t work well for me personally), or where you are focusing on the protagonist or on a specific set of characters and feel it would detract from that focus to draw out one or more of the secondary characters. I believe that latter case can legitimately lead to a decision to not round out specific characters.
Granted, I greatly admire authors who are capable of rounding out minor characters with just two lines here or there, without making them important characters. That’s really something. For me, one author who did this beautifully is Brian Katcher in his book Almost Perfect.