A stock character is a stereotypical fictional person or type of person in a work of art such as a novel, play, or a film who audiences recognize from frequent
recurrences in a particular literary tradition. There is a wide range of stock characters, covering men and women of various ages, social classes and demeanors. They are archetypal characters distinguished by their simplification and flatness. As a result, they tend to be easy targets for parody and to be criticized as clichés. The presence of a particular array of stock characters is a key component of many genres, and they often help to identify a genre or subgenre. For example, a story with a knight-errant and a witch is probably a fairy tale or fantasy.
There are several purposes to using stock characters. Stock characters are a time- and effort-saving shortcut for story creators, as authors can populate their tale with existing well-known character types. Another benefit is that stock characters help to move the story along more efficiently, by allowing the audience to already understand the character and their motivations.
Examples and history
Ancient GreeceThe study of the Character, as it is now known, was conceived by Aristotle's student Theophrastus. In The Characters, Theophrastus introduced the "character sketch", which became the core of "the Character as a genre". It included 30 character types. Each type is said to be an illustration of an individual who represents a group, characterized by his most prominent trait. The Theophrastan types are as follows:
It is unclear from where Theophraestes derived these types, but many strongly resemble those from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Despite the fact that Theophrastus sought to portray character types and not individuals, some of the sketches may have been drawn from observations of actual persons in Athenian public life. Although the preface of the work implies the intention to catalogue "human nature, associate with all sorts and conditions of men and contrast in minute detail the good and bad among them", many other possible types are left unrepresented.
These omissions are especially noticeable because each of the thirty characters represents a negative trait ; some scholars have therefore suspected that another half of the work, covering the positive types, once existed. This preface, however, is certainly fictitious, i.e. added in later times, and cannot therefore be a source of any allegation. Nowadays many scholars also believe that the definitions found in the beginning of each sketch are later additions.
New ComedyNew Comedy was the first theatrical form to have access to Theophrastus' Characters. Menander was said to be a student of Theophrastus, and has been remembered for his prototypical cooks, merchants, farmers and slave characters. Although we have few extant works of the New Comedy, the titles of Menander's plays alone have a "Theophrastan ring": The Fisherman, The Farmer, The Superstitious Man, The Peevish Man, The Promiser, The Heiress, The Priestess, The False Accuser, The Misogynist, The Hated Man, The Shipmaster, The Slave, The Concubine, The Soldiers, The Widow, and The Noise-Shy Man.
MimistryAnother early form that illustrates the beginnings of the Character is the mime. Greco-Roman mimic playlets often told the stock story of the fat, stupid husband who returned home to find his wife in bed with a lover, stock characters in themselves. Although the mimes were not confined to playing stock characters, the mimus calvus was an early reappearing character. Mimus calvus resembled Maccus, the buffoon from the Atellan Farce. The Atellan Farce is highly significant in the study of the Character because it contained the first true stock characters. The Atellan Farce employed four fool types. In addition to Maccus, Bucco, the glutton, Pappus, the naïve old man, and Dossennus, the cunning hunchback. A fifth type, in the form of the additional character Manducus, the chattering jawed pimp, also may have appeared in the Atellan Farce, possibly out of an adaptation of Dossennus. The Roman mime, as well, was a stock fool, closely related to the Atellan fools.
- Old man, probably a miser – senex iratus
- Young man in love, possibly the miser's son, who rebels against authority – adulescens amator
- Clever or cunning slave – servus callidus
- Stupid slave – servus stultus
- Hanger-on or flatterer – parasitus
- Courtesan – meretrix
- Slave dealer or pimp – leno
- Braggart soldier – Miles Gloriosus note; Swaggering Soldier
LaërtiusIn revision of Theophrastus, Diogenes Laërtius published Ethical Characters, sparking interest in two lines of study. The first is that of the character book. Imitators of Theophrastus including Satyrus Atheneus, Heracleides Ponticus, Lycon, and Rutilius Lupus wrote their own character sketches. Circa 212 BC, Ariston's discourse on morality included several proud Character types and mimicked the Theophrastan style. Following Philodemus of Gadara's work on "Self seeking Affability" and Ariston's characters, evidence of acquaintance with the genre is present, however popularity of the portrait over the generalized stock figures in increasing. This may explain the gap of time from the beginning of the Common Era to the 16th century marked by an absence of character sketching.
The second field is the study of nomenclature. As the Character rose as a literary genre, many terms were coined in attempt to place labels on the new subject. The translation Theophrastus' title is based on the terms charassein and Charakter, associated with the stamping of an impression. Rhetorica ad Herennium, attributed to Cicero, split the character up into two qualities: effictio, the description of physical appearance, and notation, the nature of man. Later in his De Inventione, Cicero divided the character, or conformation as he called it, into eleven points: name, nature, way of life, fortune, physical appearance, passions, interests, reasons for doing things, one's deeds, what happens to one, one's discourses.
Seneca, too, played a part in providing labels for the new genre in his Epistulae Morale, using the terms ethologia and characterismos for characteristic conduct of moral types. Circa 93 AD, Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria discussed the effect of personality on rhetoric and in so doing, coined the terms ethopoeia, an orator's imitation of another person's character or habits, and prosopopoeia, the same thing, but with a dramatization of the person as well as the giving of his words. Other terms conceived in the period include figurae sententiarum and descriptio personae. Decorum, the rhetorical principle that an individual's words and subject matter are appropriately matched, also became a relevant term, and would remain significant into the Renaissance.
Supersession by philosophyThe Romans' "perverse admiration for decorum" is in part responsible for the deterioration and the resulting blackout period of the Character genre. During this blackout, the Character smoldered under the philosophies of such men as Horace. In the Ars Poetica, Horace drew pictures of typical men at various ages, from childhood to old age. Horace's belief that "what is typical of a class should be observable in the individual" was illustrated in his epistles classifying Achilles as a man of rage and love, Paris an impractical lover, and Ulysses the model of virtue and wisdom. Others, such as Hermogenes, Aphthonius, and Priscian, shared this belief and sought to explore the workings of human nature.
Other countriesStock characters also feature heavily in the comic traditions of Kyōgen in Japan and Commedia dell'arte in Italy; in the latter they are known as tipi fissi.
Academic analysisThere is often confusion between stock characters, archetypes, stereotypes, and clichés. In part this confusion arises due to the overlap between these concepts. Nevertheless, these terms are not synonyms. The relationship is that basic archetypes and stock characters are the raw source material that authors use to build on and create fleshed-out, interesting characters. In contrast, stereotypes and clichés are generally viewed as signs of "bad writing or shallow thinking". Some stereotypes, such as racial stereotype characters, may be offensive to readers or viewers.
According to Dwight V. Swain, a creative writing professor and prolific fiction author, all characters begin as stock characters and are fleshed out only as far as needed to advance the plot. E. Graham McKinley says "there is general agreement on the importance to drama of 'stock' characters. This notion has been considerably explored in film theory, where feminists have argued, female stock characters are only stereotypes." Ulrike Roesler and Jayandra Soni analyze "not only with female stock characters in the sense of typical roles in the dramas, but also with other female persons in the area of the theatrical stage..."
Andrew Griffin, Helen Ostovich, and Holger Schott Syme explain further that "Female stock characters also permit a close level of audience identification; this is true most of all in The Troublesome Raign, where the "weeping woman" type is used to dramatic advantage. This stock character provides pathos as yet another counterpoint to the plays' comic business and royal pomp."
Tara Brabazon discusses how the "school ma'am on the colonial frontier has been a stock character of literature and film in Australia and the United States. She is an ideal foil for the ill mannered, uncivilised hero. In American literature and film, the spinster from East – generally Boston – has some stock attributes." Polly Welts Kaufman shows that the schoolma'am's "genteel poverty, unbending morality, education, and independent ways make her character a useful foil for the two other female stock characters in Western literature: the prostitute with the heart of gold and the long-suffering farmer's wife.'"
American filmIn American popular films, there a wide range of stock characters, which are typically used as non-speaking extras in the background, bit parts with a single line, minor secondary/supporting roles, or major secondary/supporting roles. Stock characters in American films have changed over the decades. A 1930s or 1940's films' stock characters include newspaper vendors, ice vendors, street sweepers, and cigarette girls; in contrast, a 1990s film has homeless "bag ladies", pimps, plainclothes police, business women, and Black and Hispanic characters.
A criticism of the way stock characters are used in American in films is that some racial and ethnic stereotypes used in the past were offensive, such as the way Blacks were depicted as "lazy" and Japanese people were shown as "treacherous, myopic and buck-toothed". In 1990, the new Black stock character is the "street-smart" African-American and the new Japanese stock type is the "camera-happy tourist". Other groups that have been depicted with negative stereotypes include women, Native Americans, Hispanics, Arabs, Jews, and Italians.
Some stock characters only last for a decade or so before being abandoned, such as the overweight Communist cell leader character in the 1950s or the African-American Black Panther Party militant character that was common in 1970s.
Even in timeless occupations, the person in the job has changed, reflecting cultural and demographic changes.
For example, in a 1990 film, a hairdresser is often depicted as gay, a gardener is often Asian or Hispanic, bar staff may be Black, and maids, often Black in previous eras, tended to be Hispanic.
TelevisionDue to the scheduling constraints on television production, in which episodes need to be quickly scripted and shot, television scriptwriters often depend heavily on stock characters borrowed from popular film. TV writers use these stock characters to quickly communicate to the audience. In the late 1990s, there was a trend for screenwriters to add a gay stock character, which replaced the 1980s era's "African-American workplace pal" stock character. In the 1990s, a number of sit coms introduced gay stock characters, such as Friends, Rosanne, Mad About You, and Will & Grace, with the quality of the depictions being viewed as setting a new bar for onscreen LGB depiction.
One challenge with the use of stock characters in TV shows is that, as with films, these stock characters can incorporate racial stereotypes, and "prejudicial and demeaning images". One concern raised with these gay stock characters is they tend to be shown as just advice-giving "sidekicks" who are not truly integrated into the narrative; as well, the gay character's life is not depicted, apart from their advice-giving interactions with the main characters. This also echoed the way that Black and Latino characters were used in 1980s and early 1990s shows: they were given a stock character role as a police chief, which in put them in a position of power, but then these characters were used as minor characters, with little narrative interaction with main characters. In the 2000s, with changing views on depicting race, Latino/a characters are both typecast into stock characters and the writers play with viewer expectations by making a seemingly stock Latino/a character act or behave "against type".
Southern sheriff stock characters are depicted with a negative stereotype of being obese, poorly trained, uneducated, and racist, as was done with Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane from The Dukes of Hazzard.