There are a few characters that we’re all familiar with in television and literature. Most lawyers are terrible people, the black guy who lightens the mood in a horror movie will die first, the high school head cheerleader will be catty (unless she’s the main character), and any pair of cops will have one who goes by the book and one wild card.

These character archetypes, when they’re not main or central characters, can tell the reader a lot about what type of story to expect. They’re referred to as stock characters.

Pleasantville

Pleasantville is a store about some very stock characters come to life.

Origins of Stock Characters

Looser versions of the stock character have been around since ancient Greece with the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, when certain deities would serve the role of the fool. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales has a cast of stock characters, and almost all of Shakespeare’s comedies (and some of his tragedies) employ the use of the fool.

In contemporary film, the girl/boy next door, the triumphant underdog, the sarcastic best friend, and the cat lady have become modern stock characters that we can pick out instantly.

Take Your Stock Characters Out of the Box

Often, these stock characters are pretty flat. There’s not much development that goes into them except to inform the reader as to what kind of story to expect. If you have a damsel in distress, there’s probably going to be a dramatic rescue. If you have an underdog sports team, there’s likely going to be a fairly large upset.

This does not make them bad, mind you; these stock characters can help set a story.

However, just because you use a stock character doesn’t mean you have to use them in the way they’re usually used. A lot of parody films take stock characters and play with their roles, or make stock characters their main characters. Young Frankenstein is a great example, because it takes the stock characters of the mad scientist and the monster, and it twists them around and turns them into full-fledged protagonists.

Have you used stock characters in your writing? What is your favorite character archetype?

PRACTICE

Take fifteen minutes and write about your own version of the fool, and then add a twist to create a subversion of that archetype.

Post your practice in the comments and leave feedback for other writers too.

Liz Bureman
Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she’s not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.