Admit it: we all love a stereotype

One criticism of my novel Package Deal that comes up now and again is that the characters are a bunch of stereotypes. My response to that: absolutely!

Indeed there are a lot of stereotypes in Package Deal. But where do stereotypes come from? They come from real people – people we’ve all met at some point, if not time and time again. And that’s what makes them amusing. Take some of these characters for example:

Ricky Gervais’s David Brent in The Office (top pic)
Harry Enfield’s and Kathy Burke’s Wayne and Waynetta Slob in Harry Enfield’s Television Programme (second pic)
John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers
Jennifer Saunders’ and Joanna Lumley’s Eddie and Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous
David Jason’s Delboy in Only Fools and Horses

These characters are classics. Why? Because we’ve all met them. And when we come face to face with them in everyday life, we often find their behaviour cringeworthy/ridiculous/abhorrent/shocking – which is why they make such good characters to base comedies around.

Many of the characters in Package Deal are loosely based on real people. Bosom buddies Caz and Babs actually inspired the whole story: while on holiday in Kefalonia over 10 years ago, my husband and I stayed at the very apartment complex the story takes place in. It was lovely and quiet, with just the sound of goat bells in the distance. Then, on our second week, Caz and Babs arrived…without their husbands, without their kids, ready to relish a fortnight of freedom.

I’ve forgotten their real names, but they were loud. They disturbed the peace with their incessant cackling and annoying ring tones. You could almost sense everyone inwardly groaning when Caz and Babs padded out of their apartment and headed for the pool. But then, halfway through the week, Caz and Babs invited everyone along to Greek dancing night at a nearby hotel and to their credit, they got everyone to go along and get chatting to one another. They were sweet, likeable women who knew how to have fun.

I only chatted with them for an hour or so but in that short space of time I learned there was a lot more to them than just their loud, larger-than-life personas. As a writer, you start to invent the rest, little by little.

There was also a guy there who was on his own. I only became aware of him at Greek dancing night because Caz and Babs weren’t keen to invite him to join us. I don’t know why he was there alone, only that he seemed to have an air of neediness about him that sadly made people want to avoid him. When I was writing the story, this guy became Simon, the jilted honeymooner, and Simon soon morphed into a geeky guy I used to work with a long time ago.

Local adonis Dimitri is inspired by an old holiday romance of mine from when I was a teenager. I imagined what he would be like in his thirties and, using his goodlooking, outgoing, bubbly personality, I invented the rest of his background and circumstances. Beneath his happy-go-lucky smile, he was sad with a gaping void he didn’t know how to fill.

As for solo holidaymaker Mia, she was inspired by a woman I saw on a TV chat show. The topic of the show was people who’d been adopted or who had grown up in foster homes, people who wished their biological parents had shown some interest in them while they were growing up. It was a heated debate, with the woman I based Mia on actually confronting her birth mother there in the studio. There was a lot of anger and emotion on both sides. I’d heard an agent say once that you can have as many characters as you like in a story so long as one of them is the central character. Therefore Mia seemed the obvious choice for that role.

Lads-on-the-pull Steve and Craig were partly inspired by characters from TV soaps and partly inspired by various male members of my own family, who, back in our younger years, were never short of rude jokes and crude stories that I didn’t want to hear. (Ok, I did, but I always regretted it.)

So yes, there are a fair few stereotypes in Package Deal. But as with their real life counterparts, what’s interesting is what’s beneath the surface of these characters. No one is the ‘sum total’ of the two hours you spend in their company on the plane or in the queue for the check-in desk. Everyone has a story or an element to their character that might surprise you. And that’s what I hope comes through in Package Deal.

By the end of the story, the characters have each revealed a deeper layer to their seemingly predictable surfaces. You’ve seen an unexpected side to them. You’ve seen their struggles and vulnerabilities. Hopefully, you’ve finished the book thinking they’re not such a bad bunch after all.

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Smells like teen spirit

I have a confession to make: I thoroughly enjoyed Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. Before you depart from this blog in disgust and banish me from your Twitter feed, you might like to find out why on earth a 40-year-old mother with a degree in French and a career as a copywriter would enjoy this mass-market novel supposedly aimed at teenagers.

I bought the book because – and I swear this is the truth – having seen the trailer for New Moon (the second book in the saga) on TV, I wanted to know how Stephenie Meyer could describe a boy’s transition from human to wolf in a credible and convincing way. As a writer, I often find myself stumbling over how to describe something so that the reader can visualise exactly what I’m visualising – such as a facial expression or a movement. So it was for this reason that I was keen to have a browse through one of her books. Not to mention that as an author who has become a global success, I was sure there was something I could learn from her.

So when I came across Twilight in a charity shop, I snatched it off the shelf and bought it. ‘For technical reasons,’ I told my husband when he took the book from me and raised his eyebrows.

I had not expected to finish Twilight – but I read it and got sucked (pardon the pun) right in. I forgot all about my technical reasons (she uses the word ‘phasing’ by the way) and just got swept along with the story. I hadn’t realised it was a love story – one with a good hint of Romeo and Juliet about it. And I also hadn’t realised how long it had been since I’d last read a love story.

Twilight took me right back to my teenage years when a holiday romance with a Greek guy turned my sixteen-year-old world upside down. I longed to live in Greece, be part of a Greek family and absorb Greek culture. (Of course it didn’t last, but years later, when I started writing, I imagined what my ex-boyfriend would be like now, and the character of Dimitri in my novel Package Deal was born.)

For a brief period, the Twilight saga enabled me to tap right back into my teenage self. I dug out my old diaries and read pages of angst-riddled mush about my love for ‘Dimitri’. It made me laugh out loud in places, cringe in others. I looked through old photos. (Dimitri had sported a dodgy mullet, but hey, it was the Eighties.) He was my fantasy world while my parents were splitting up, school was a load of old bollocks and there was nowhere to hang out and smoke apart from the bench around the corner.

My trip down memory lane was a strange experience. I was in a bit of a haze for a week or so – revisiting a time that felt like a lifetime ago, and realising I am a long, long way from sixteen. I felt like I was mourning my younger self.

‘Have we got over our mid-life crisis, now Mrs H?’ my husband asked me eventually, holding a charity bag in one hand and my Twilight DVD in the other.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked. The cheek.

‘Well, your 40th birthday is just around the corner and you’ve developed an unhealthy obsession with a pasty-looking 24-year-old actor.’

He had a point. It was time to get back to reality and embrace my forthcoming landmark birthday with courage and optimism.

As for the Twilight saga, I’ve stashed the books away for my daughters to read one day. (And as for the DVD, I sneaked that back out of the charity bag. I’m not quite done with it yet. Technical reasons, naturally.)