by Nick Conrad
Stock characters have existed since ancient times. Playwrights, especially, relied on them to convey points to the audience on a very visible, easily comprehensible level. In writing they are an example of showing rather than telling, as they are largely defined by their outward, most apparent aspects. Stock characters are a familiar and expected part of fiction, especially genre fiction—they embody familiar archetypes that help present back story in a minimal amount of words. They might also help steer the plot, although this must be done with care.
Stock characters frequently serve as minor characters, where they are often quite useful. A good example in romance would be the confidante. The heroine has a supportive, helpful best friend, often with a good sense of humor or some other trait to keep her charming and interesting. The confidante might be the one to encourage the heroine to follow her heart, especially if the heroine has doubts about her relationship with the hero. She might also help the heroine better understand her feelings. She might be a kindly old nursemaid who tells the heroine what to expect from love and marriage, or the gal pal who sips her latte as she helps the heroine realize, “Face it, honey, you’ve got it bad and he’s perfect for you.” This confidante might be privy to information the heroine is not, which can help to resolve a conflict—perhaps, during a heartwrenching misunderstanding, she can help clear the hero’s name in the eyes of the heroine. She could also serve as a means of stirring up conflict, though, by innocently passing on incorrect information about the hero.
Many stock characters appear only briefly in the story, some merely popping up for one scene. Such characters can be useful, as they easily provide information without clogging the narrative with pages of back story. They can also be neatly contained in their complexity—the image of the hardworking farmer, the street-smart tough guy or the eccentric hermit can tell many stories the moment they are introduced, because each tells an implicit story.
Now, if the character is a cardboard cutout who relies solely on stereotypes, then it’s a bust. Using exaggerated “thug talk” or backwoods English turns ordinary characters into caricatures, and then there’s no way to take them seriously. (Not to mention, it can get kind of offensive, as discussed in the last article.) So even stock characters deserve some research and development. Perhaps they only exist for one scene, and that’s fine, but “plot device” becomes a dirty word when it’s obvious to the reader what you’re doing. If the strings are showing that much, you might as well just give us the pages of back story or have a message in a bottle show up, because the effect is about the same.
The central characters of the story frequently embody archetypes that can make them seem like stock characters. Below are some familiar examples in romance:
The rogue hero who must be tamed by love
The virgin heroine
The ancient, world-weary immortal hero who is either desperate for love or reluctant to love because of some tragedy long ago
The frustrated, overworked heroine who gets no respect
The anti-hero who is an outcast from society and has a dark, checkered past
The jaded heroine who has given up on romance and is just looking for a night of great sex instead
The rebellious “bad boy” hero with a heart of gold
The heroine who has lost her ability to trust men, often because of mistreatment, abuse or violence in her past
The protector hero whose livelihood involves defending one’s homestead (warrior, police officer, outlaw cowboy) and who is fiercely overprotective of the heroine
Some readers are sick of these folks and would like never to read about them again. Others might have a special fondness for one or a few of them. We joke about the abundance of single, handsome titled men in Regency England, or about how many small-town sheriffs happen to be ex-Navy SEALs. Again, we don’t want characters to be cardboard cutouts, especially our main characters. But the descriptions in the list above, though specific and recognizable, have a lot of room for development. The key is to give characters the attention they deserve. Make them distinctive—don’t let their position or history do all the work of defining them. Okay, so your hero is a thousand-year-old vampire warlord with a dark, checkered past. But does he have a distinctive personality with a distinctive checkered past, or could he be replaced by a stand-in with a similar description? What is it about this character that makes him memorable? And is there an original plot, or is the implicit back story the stock character provides supposed to be doing all the work?
The above applies to villains, too. There’s no rule that one has to be sympathetic to the villain’s motives, but the motive still needs to be there. Making a villain eeeeeevil for the sake of being eeeeeevil tries the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief. Likewise, defining the villain solely by deed by piling multiple vile acts on the character—“And he’s a rapist, too! And he kicks puppies!”—makes for a weak villain.
Suspension of disbelief problems can come about for characters in the other direction, too. “Mary Sue” is a term that originated in fan fiction and has come to mean an overly idealized, easily recognizable character. Generally speaking, the Mary Sue outshines all other characters by being flawless, even when she or he appears to have flaws. For instance, such a character might have a tragic and painful past and most likely feels unnecessary guilt about it, or there might exist some sort of physical weakness or mental illness that is clearly intended to garner sympathy from the reader. Mary Sue characters are often the author’s attempt at self-insertion in the story, so it’s no wonder that they tend to get all the “good parts”. Typically, the character has some sort of trait or ability that surpasses that of other characters, or all the most interesting or intense action involves this character. Now, in genre fiction especially, it is not uncommon for the central characters to be involved in the majority of the action and to have special characteristics that distinguish them from other characters. They are the stars of the show, after all—in romance, the hero is supposed to be the most desirable man, and both he and the heroine should be likeable. (Who wants to root for a match between two people you can’t stand, or between a likeable character and a complete jerk?) But if either character has no flaws or said flaws only exist in a way that makes the character look better or more sympathetic, the Mary Sue factor is dangerously high.
If written well, stock characters with stock backgrounds can serve a much-needed purpose. Just remember to flesh out your main characters, and never use a character solely as a crutch. The pressure from above tends to stunt their growth.