What Are Stock Characters, and How Can They Enliven Your Story

by Liz Bureman | 21 comments

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 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?


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.

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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.


  1. James Hall

    Greybo watched Tirrast slice at a medium-sized tree with his sword. Greybo noted his attacks lacked all signs of finesse. His attacks were jerky, poorly placed, and obvious. He would be dead in two heart beats in a battle with orcs or goblins, let alone a real enemy.

    “Take care, Tirrast! Such a dangerous foe. Don’t let him sap on ye.”

    Tirrast gave him a less than friendly look. He took a few aggressive and ungraceful swings at a limb above his head. His second swing lodged into the branch. A snap sounded, and the leafy arm crackled as Tirrast struggled with his pinched blade. The end of the branch brushed the ground. When his sword came loose, so too did the branch, delivering a swift thwack to the top of his head and knocking him to the ground. Laughter exploded from the dwarfs.

    “Ho lad!” Greybo said, catching his breath. “Ye are the first I’ve ever known to tangle with a tree and have his arse rebuked!”

    Tirrast wobbled back to his feet, rubbing a knot on his head. He gave the rest of the company a sore look.

    “I’ll not be travellin’ with one that can’t hold a sword against a tree.” Greybo moved away from the group. “Come Tirrast, and ye as well Dayotan, we shall train. ‘Twill be more useful than watchin’ Tirrast shave one of his legs off.”

    “Would not we need another partner?” Tirrast asked.

    “Nay, I shall train ye both. Throw aside yer swords now and loose yer scabbards.” Greybo first showed them basic footing and posture techniques that would improve their balance. He followed with instructions of dodging and parrying with the scabbards. After nearly an hour had passed, the lesson was concluded. Greybo promised to continue with more lessons.

    • Benjamin Paul Clifton

      I like this a lot. Are these the characters for your book?

      I can see this story as a whole life story. I see them in the woods, doing what they do, but then I see so much more. I see Tirrast as a fool now, but I also see him in five-ten years, becoming the master, the mentor. I had a hard time following the tree falling on him, though. Otherwise, everything shows your general poise as a writer. I’ve not read enough, but I’m starting to get a view of your writing, and I see you going places with your pictures.

    • James Hall

      The tree didn’t fall on him. He swings at a branch above his head, the branch tilts downward. When the gets his blade loose, the branch snaps off the rest of the way and hits him in the head.

      Yes, these characters are from my book, this is a scene I’m debating on adding.

    • Benjamin Paul Clifton

      Ahh, poor analyzing on my part.

      I like the relationship between Greybo and Tirrast. Really like this post. Hope to see it when I buy your book!

    • James Hall

      You are the first to say you would buy my book. I’m about halfway done with it. 300 page down, 300 to go. I’m hoping to be done by the end of they year, but it might be January or February before I’m done. Writing short stories and getting better at writing takes priority.

      Thanks Benjamin. Do you go by Ben or just Benjamin?

    • Benjamin Paul Clifton

      If it’s done in February, you can send it to me as a birthday gift! Good luck on the last half! I hope to be around as the process happens.

      I go by either. I’ve started to go by Benjamin as of the past year or so, probably because I take myself too seriously though.

    • Victoria

      Whenever I read your writing, I can hear your characters voices so well in my head. … It sounds like a Scottish accent. Is that what you’re going for?

    • James Hall


      Yes. It should probably sound archaic and Scottish, especially from the dwarfs.

      Do you like it? I know it is commonly done, but I try to twist it in my own fashion

    • Victoria

      Yes, I do like it. I’ve read books where they’re supposed to have a Scottish accent, but I think yours is the only one in which I’ve been able to easily and consistently hear the accent as I’m reading.

      Sometimes it can be a hard balance, because you don’t want to make it so ‘authentic’ that no one can understand it, but you also want to keep enough in there that the reader remembers they have an accent.

    • James Hall

      Well great. I always love to hear feed back on my dialog because my book has a story in a story told by a dwarf. I rewrite the internal story with his dialog, so half the book uses this dialog!

      It has been great practice for learning to master turning excellent prose narrated by me into equally or better prose narrated in pseudo-medieval. I’ve spent countless hours research terms in an Etymology dictionary (one that gives word origins and dates). I’ve found a mixture of this and carefully chosen words allows a total verbal submersion. Additionally, as you mentioned, I ease into it and I also stay pretty consistent, so that it is easily understand and easily read.

      Its been a most fulfilling challenge for me, I’m glad I chose to face it!

    • Victoria

      Sounds like hard, but rewarding work!

  2. Benjamin Paul Clifton

    Michael sat with his elbow on the table and his hand propped on his light ginger stubbled cheek, keeping his head from falling. His mouth was left hanging open to gather flies and to allow excess liquids to leak from it. He did not look different from other twenty-somethings, he had short, thin light hair to match his stubble and was of average height and build, but he was different. His professor spoke passionately, wearing a hole in the floor of the lecture hall. Dr. Beleugh was quite possibly the oldest man on earth still teaching. The skin of his face sinked far beyond the point of his chin, and the hairs that remained on his head were few and far between. His circular glasses magnified the size of his eyes tenfold. His voice was smaller than a mouse, so he always demanded that the large hall stay more quiet than a soundproof room except for the sound of his voice.
    “The vena cava,” he squeaked, “pumps blood into the right atrium where it then goes through the tricuspid valve to enter the right ventricle. It then exits,” his voice cracked to an even higher pitch of a mouse. Everyone in the hall was holding back a snicker, but they all allowed smirks on their faces. Everyone except for Michael. He was still engrossed. Dr. Beleugh coughed and continued, “through the pulmonary arteries to go through the pulmonary circuit to become rich in oxygen.”
    After the sudden shift from the accidental voice crack, Dr. Beleugh noticed the difference between Michael’s posture and everyone else’s. “Mr. Morross,” Dr. Beleugh dared raise his voice, “are we not entertaining you?” His voice cracked a little as usual, though not as significant as the last. Michael merely sat up a bit and shook his head no. He generally had a hard time coming up with his own words. “Too good to speak up, then?” Dr. Beleugh asked. He continued, “Tell me this, then: What is the circuit of the cardiovascular system?”
    Michael sat there looking around at everyone. He hadn’t cleared up the drool on his chin and everyone was looking at him. He felt his body being trapped under the heat that began at every end of his body and spread to his insides. He always sat in the back, trying to keep away from situations like this. How had the old man seen him from so far away, he wondered.
    He started to say something, but nothing came out. He tried again and again, opening his mouth like a license plate machine, sometimes producing some sound or word, but also like a license plate, the letters and numbers never made sense. He really could never speak for himself. He just couldn’t put words together.
    “The vena cava,” Michael began, word-for-word and in a more mouse like tone than his usual, deeper pitched voice, “pumps blood into the right atrium where it then goes through the tricuspid valve to enter the right ventricle. It then exits,” and right on cue, his voice cracked, just as Dr. Beleugh’s had. As he about started again, his voice was lost to the roars of laughter from his peers. Michael’s already red face grew more red as did Dr. Beleugh’s. He couldn’t help it. He didn’t mean to. He would explain if he could, but he didn’t know how. He could only use other people’s words, and they only came out word for word.
    The Doctor just stood there with his arms crossed, tapping his foot, as the crowd quieted. Once it finally did and with steam flowing from his ears, he walked to the back at a leisurely pace to face Michael.
    “Mr. Morross, seeing as you’re a waste of everyone’s money here and more importantly a waste of my time, I’m going to ask you to leave,” he demanded with a few cracks here and there.
    Michael, his face still red, grabbed his bag and walked down the aisle of the soundproof lecture hall. Without looking back, he opened the door, shut it, and slumped down against the wall.
    Everyone would think he was the class clown. Everyone would think he was a fool.

    • James Hall

      Aw man. I thought the old fart teacher was going to be a nice one. I loved this story. The voice description were so realistic, I could hear the old fart talking. You did a good job of making the vocalizations of Michael sound accidental.

      Nice job, Benjamin!

    • Benjamin Paul Clifton

      Well thank you! Glad to hear you loved it. Especially considering this is the kind of comment I need to read right now. I’m so stuck in my writing, so thank you very much. I was worried about how accidental it would seem and whether it would be confusing.

    • James Hall

      I don’t know if you are active on WordPress or know what it is. It is a blogging site. They have what is called Freshly Pressed. They have editors that routine look around blogs and pick out special blogs posts and show them to EVERYONE. It’s like 5 minutes of fame or something. Well, I’ve literally told NO ONE, but I got an email saying my latest post was chosen. I have no idea when it actually will go up, but I’m very excited about it.

      You can find it here It is the first one, To Autumn. My first nonfiction writing in a long time. The rest are other short stories by me.

      Don’t prod or get down on yourself, I think you are great Benjamin. You’ve got my attention in a very short time for your great stories and interaction. Just write it!

      Or do I need to get you electric boots and a mohair suit.

      B-B-B-Benny and the Jetsssss…… 🙂

    • Benjamin Paul Clifton

      Nicely done, James! Congratulations! I’ve yet to get into the blogging world, but I figure a may have to eventually. I’ll figure it out. I dunno. It scares me. I’ll check out the post once I get home from college today. Leaves me something else to look forward to!

      Thanks, James, for the encouragement. It really means a lot. Hopefully I’ll reboot with today’s events or maybe today’s practice!

    • James Hall

      How old are you Benjamin?

    • Benjamin Paul Clifton

      I’m 18

    • Victoria

      Loved your description of Dr. Beleugh!

    • Benjamin Paul Clifton

      Thank you! That was probably my favourite part.

  3. Mande78

    Didn’t realize, but I have a stock character in the sequel to my first book (not yet published). Her purpose is to betray the main character to the bad guy. Glad to have a category to put her in. Thanks.



  1. » The OutRamp Guide to Writing: Episode #1 - The OutRamp - […] Liz Bureman (The Write Practice) with What Are Stock Characters, and How Can They Enliven Your Story […]
  2. » The OutRamp Writer’s Wroundup Newsletter #1: October 13 – 19, 2013 - The OutRamp - […] What Are Stock Characters, and How Can They Enliven Your Story […]

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