Stock characters are at the heart of a writer’s toolbox, all added to the box over a long period of time. Characterization is one of the many challenges a writer must overcome so using tried and tested types of characters can come in useful.
Why do we put so much onus on character? Well, characters are whom our audiences resonate with and follow on the story journey. It is crucial that as writers, we write well-rounded, relatable characters who will engage and excite.
Stock characters have been showing up for many years. Think damsel in distress, loveable rogue, the bitter noble, the mentor who trains our hero, to name but just a few. We all know these characters in one way or another, so it’s strangely comforting when they pop up in our favorite books, films, plays and TV shows.
In this article, we shall explore the history of stock characters, their benefits in bringing your stories to life, as well as limitations to look out for. So, without further ado, let’s get started!
What Are Stock Characters?
In short, stock characters are based on common social or literary stereotypes that are easily recognizable. They aren’t usually protagonists or other principal characters but instead support the leads in providing interaction and various connections for them.
In fact, Loukides and Fuller even go so far as to say, “by way of categorization, stock figures in popular film have traditionally been divided into four types: 1. The conventional environmental figure, or ‘extra’, 2. The bit role, 3. Minor secondary and/or supporting role, 4. Major secondary and/or supporting role.” (pg. 4, 1990)
It is important not to confuse stock characters with archetypes or stereotypes; stock characters fall somewhere in between the two. Archetypes are very specific and unique whereas stock characters are usually very predictable and straightforward. Stereotypes are assumed by a character’s class, race, sex etc. You’ll find stock characters usually have one or two lines or will be background interest.
As we’ve already mentioned, stock characters have been developed over time, with writers slowly finding patterns in the people around them and fictionally portrayed characters. Often, in early literature, stock characters were widely used, so much so, that when writers use them, they’re essentially picking them off a shop shelf. Hence the term ‘stock character’.
Some of the earliest stock characters originated in theater. Commedia Dell’Arte is an improvised comedic theater that thrived in 16th century Italy. Actors would perform different scenarios, but the key was that the characters always remained the same: identical attitude, look, drive, and physical characteristics such as a walk, pose, or gesture. They also mostly wear masks.
There are usually three different types of Commedia Dell’Arte characters: servants (hungry and mischievous), masters (foolish and greedy), and lovers.
Bartley, in the October 1942 edition of The Modern Language Review, cites stock characters between the late 19th and early 20th centuries as “…not merely the presentation of a type, which may well be novel and realistic: novelty is not conventional, and realism is not thought saving…a stock character evokes responses and implies stock attitudes…as a result of removal from experience.” (pg. 202)
Here, Bartley is describing stock characters as commentary on the world around us, and a way for audiences to see common attitudes and cultural convention, rather than singular people or characters.
Say you wanted a way to present an opposing attitude to that of your story’s protagonist. By introducing a typical loveable sidekick, for example, you’re not just introducing them as a character but as an attitude for which your protagonist to bounce off, or a different perspective on the plot itself. The introduction of this stock character will evoke a particular emotion or thought process in the audience that they perhaps wouldn’t experience if that stock character didn’t exist in the story.
Importance of Stock Characters in Storytelling
According to Silverblatt, “the appearance of stock characters enables the audience to become involved in the story immediately…every genre is characterized by its own set of stock characters” (pg. 49, 2015). This means audiences can recognize their attitudes and what they may bring to the story instantly, as well as assist them in understanding the story’s overall genre.
As stock characters aren’t principal characters, this is enormously beneficial; you don’t want them to draw attention away from the protagonist as the audience try to work them out.
With just a few lines or even just a look, stock characters serve as essential narrative devices to support the development of the main characters (either by helping them or standing in their way!) as well as driving the plot forward.
From providing conflict, offering guidance, or serving as obstacles on the protagonist’s journey, stock characters are used strategically to create tension, offer comic relief or to provoke an emotional response in the audience. They aren’t just there for show!
Stock characters reflect the societal views and norms of the time in which they’re used. These could be cultural or within a certain time frame, especially within a period piece or a time of changing social dynamics and attitudes.
Breaking Down Common Stock Characters
We’ve explored what stock characters are in the broader sense, but just who should we be looking out for? Yes, most stock characters you see will be background characters, but you should recognize some classic protagonists and other key characters too!
You’ll notice that these stock characters are broad in their descriptions. When developing your characters, you’d then need to add an archetype and other key characteristics to ensure they’re authentic and well-rounded characters overall.
A central character who embodies courage, virtue, and a strong moral code. Heroes and heroines typically face challenges and adversity on a noble quest to meet a goal or defeat an antagonist.
Examples of the hero/heroine stock character include King Arthur, Beowulf, Harry Potter (Harry Potter), Superman, Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games), Lyra (His Dark Materials) and Jane Eyre (Jane Eyre).
Usually, the primary antagonist works against the hero, often motivated by greed, power or malevolence. They serve as the main source of conflict and adversity throughout the story.
Iago (Othello), Darth Vader (Star Wars), Voldemort (Harry Potter), Hans Gruber (Die Hard), Lady Macbeth (Macbeth), Cruella De Ville (101 Dalmatians) and The White Witch (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) are all just a few examples of classic villains.
Providing guidance and knowledge to our heroes, sidekicks are known to sometimes provide comic relief, and be a close friend. You’ll find that they have a very different personality to the main character, providing a different perspective and attitude on the journey ahead.
Some of our favorite sidekicks include Dr. John Watson (Sherlock Holmes), Samwise Gamgee (The Lord of the Rings), Ron Weasley (Harry Potter), Tinkerbell (Peter Pan), Kitty Bennet (Pride and Prejudice), and Éponine (Les Misérables).
The Damsel in Distress
This stock character is dwindling in popularity, and for good reason. With many stories embracing female empowered roles and self-reliant female characters, the damsel in distress has become less relevant.
However, in the past, the damsel in distress was typically a female character requiring protection or to be rescued.
Princess Peach (Super Mario), Elizabeth Swann (Pirates of the Caribbean), Lois Lane (Superman) and Olive Oyl (Popeye) are just a few examples.
Mentors are hugely popular characters in many novel and film franchises. They offer their knowledge and guidance to the hero or heroine. Crucial to the main character’s development and journey, the mentor is a wise and experienced presence in the story world.
Some of the best-known mentors include Obi-Wan Kenobi in (Star Wars), Mr. Miyagi (The Karate Kid), M (James Bond), and Galadriel (The Lord of the Rings).
Known as the main source of comic relief, the fool/jester lightens the mood of the story. They often have quirky personalities and deliver witty one-liners or utilize physical comedy.
Puck in (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Dory (Finding Nemo), Drax (Guardians of the Galaxy), and Darcy (Thor) are just some examples of comic relief.
There are infinite background stock characters to choose from, which means there is a great deal of overlap in their characteristics. None of these examples require a huge amount of reading or screen time, but as we’ve already discussed, they are integral to the development of the protagonists/s and the plot.
Let’s look at some examples of background stock characters:
Mainly specific to the Star Trek franchise where if a single background character is wearing a red shirt, the audience knows they’re most likely not going to survive the episode.
The Starving/Tortured Artist
Known to sacrifice their own wellbeing to finish their artwork. A dogged and extreme sense of dedication.
The Mad Scientist
Usually perceived to be not just mad, but insane. There are two traditional approaches to the mad scientist, the first villainous and antagonistic, the second eccentric or clumsy.
The Mean Girl
Often known as the ‘queen bee’, the mean girl uses her popularity to hinder the protagonist.
A character who refuses to follow the rules, unconforming of the story world’s rules.
Stock Characters in Modern Media
With the constant stream of new media in the form of e-books, online magazines and comics, online streaming and DVD/Blu-Ray releases, stock characters have naturally evolved and continue to do so.
As with time, attitudes and societal norms change, which we briefly discussed with the falling popularity of the ‘damsel in distress’ character. Changing values mean deconstructed stock characters, and an opportunity to put them back together again.
Creatives are naturally also experimenting with combining stock characters to create new ideas and characters.
For example, in Game of Thrones, it could be argued that Tyrion Lannister is a mix of the fool and the hero, providing comic relief in the intensity of the Lannister household and its bloodthirsty goals. Yet as the plot develops, he becomes courageous in his opposition against his own family, becoming a mentor to other characters such as the mighty and determined Daenerys Targaryen.
The continued evolution of stock characters has also created some exciting combinations. Penned The Adorkable Ones, characters like Jess from the TV show New Girl and Ted from How I Met Your Mother, combine social awkwardness (or dorkiness) with a certain cuteness. Audiences have grown to love these characters and can relate to them very easily.
The One Whom Everyone Bullies may be a stock character that concerns us, but it’s a hugely popular character to utilize, especially in comedy. Characters like Meg Griffin (Family Guy) and Neville Longbottom (Harry Potter) are relentlessly bullied, teased, or overlooked by other characters.
For Neville Longbottom’s character arc, this proved to be huge as he came into his own in the final three books of the Harry Potter series.
Criticisms and Limitations
The use of stock characters does of course come with its warnings and has had a bad reputation in the past for being a lazy way to create characters. This is where stock characters must be used correctly!
Whilst devising a stock character, writers need to ask where they fit into the story and what their impact is going to be. It’s very easy to slot a character in and not contribute anything to the plot or development of principal characters.
Stock characters are not complete characters, and writers must work on fleshing them out to ensure they are well-rounded and relatable, especially when it comes to main characters. Writers shouldn’t rely on stereotypes, risking their story being full of cliches and unrealistic characters.
Stock characters are the mere foundations, and it’s up to us as writers to build upon them.
Despite the limitations of stock characters, if they are used well, they can be a limitless source of inspiration for developing relatable characters who will drive an exciting and engaging plot for audiences to resonate with.
As writers, it is up to us to use them creatively and to reinvent the wheel of stock characters, combining and reinvigorating the characters that came before.
Loukides, P. and Fuller, L.K. (1990) Beyond the stars: Stock characters in American popular film. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press.
J. O. Bartley. “The Development of a Stock Character I. The Stage Irishman to 1800.” The Modern Language Review, vol. 37, no. 4, 1942, pp. 438–47. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/3716488. Accessed 13 Oct. 2023.
Silverblatt, A. (2015) Genre in Mass Media: A Handbook. Armonk, NY. M.E. Sharpe Inc.