15 Stock Characters — and How to Restock Them

By Mark Nichol

Does the cast of characters in your novel or short story fall under some of these categories? Take care that your characters don’t fall into the cliché trap: If you find that they resemble one of the stereotypes below, reconsider your characterization or at least provide the dramatis persona with a distinguishing personality characteristic that’s a twist on the same old, same old.

1. Antihero: This character, a protagonist (typically seen in detective and adventure genres) whose personality flaws distinguish him or her from a standard hero, is inherently much more interesting than the upstanding counterpart. The key characteristic is usually misanthropy, but that’s not enough to round a character out. An antihero must have a solid foundation on which to stand.

2. Absent-minded professor: Perhaps Professor Fumblebuttons is just pretending to be a shock-haired scientist who can’t remember where he put his glasses (“Um, the glasses you’re wearing?”). What’s his motive for his deception?

3. Boy/girl next door: Is John or Mary really what he or she seems? What dark secret does that wholesome countenance conceal? This character easily pales in comparison with a complicated villain or sidekick, so make an extra effort to invest your protagonist with personality — or relegate the squeaky-clean persona to a secondary role.

4. Clown/fool: Traditionally, the court jester — often someone of fragile mental stability or feigning the same — was the only person allowed to mock or question his powerful patron, and his antics involved not only lighthearted entertainment but also sometimes barbed satire or veiled criticism. A comic-relief character needs to be more than just a wisecracking or mischievous type. Perhaps he’s the omniscient narrator, or he’s pretending to be a smart-aleck to divert attention from his true purpose.

5. Damsel in distress: The helpless young maiden is one of the most tired tropes in storytelling — and so is the helpless young maiden turned butt-kicking babe. Better yet, imbue your ingenue with the characteristics of another character type, either one on this list or another stock persona.

6. Everyman: The peril of presenting a character designed to represent everyone is that he will appeal to no one. Make sure your everyman (or everywoman, or boy or girl edition) possesses enough distinguishing characteristics to be interesting, even intriguing. Remember: Relentlessly virtuous characters are boring, and stories in which they have no real challenges fail to engage readers.

7. Femme fatale: The enduring appeal of the deceptive villainess is whether she is in fact aiding or thwarting the protagonist. It’s a balancing act to keep readers guessing to the very end of the story—and that may not be enough. What if your femme fatale is herself deceived, either by the protagonist or by a third character? Twists within twists keep this trope fresh.

8. Hooker with a heart of gold: The bad girl turned good girl is a nice repudiation of moral intolerance, but it’s a stale stereotype. As in the case of her sister the femme fatale, readers shouldn’t be able to predict how she will behave. Is a second-act act of kindness part of a climactic ruse? Is she pressured to betray the protagonist, or is it part of her own plot?

9. Knight-errant: This bright-eyed variant of the hero can drag down a story with him (or her) — take care that the conscientious crusader is not too glistening of tooth and sparkling of eye. The most interesting knight-errant in literature is Don Quixote, who was an abject failure (and was all the more appealing for his indefatigable idealism).

10. Manic pixie dream girl: This phrase, coined relatively recently, refers to the offbeat and seemingly off-her-rocker character who upends the protagonist’s carefully ordered world. The problem? She’s done and overdone — at least in films. For the stereotype to not be stale, there has to be more to her than quirk. Why is she such a goofball?

11. Nerd: Geek, dork, nimrod — been there, done that. But, for example, in the brilliant film Brick (film noir meets adolescent angst), the school brain is not an object of scorn but an awkward, laconic human database for the teenage gumshoe — and there’s a touch of empathy for him in the way the lead character keeps him at arm’s length. What makes a nerd a nerd? And what makes him (or her) interesting? Hints of depth, or of deviousness, or both.

12. Sidekick: The protagonist’s right-hand man or woman serves as a counterpoint: intrepid vs. timid, serious vs. silly, and so on, one way or the other. Make sure your lead character’s attendant complements him or her, but also keep their relationship fresh by introducing some vulnerability in the main character the subordinate can exploit.

13. Tomboy: The tomboy transformed is a tired trope, not much better than the mousy maiden who becomes a blithe beauty just by taking off her eyeglasses. Resist the urge to go the Cinderella route: If an androgynous or athletic woman or girl refuses to conform to societal standards for feminine appearance, go with it. But why does she rebel against such norms? That’s the key to her character.

14. Tortured artist: In literature as in real life, complicated creative types are tiresome. A broadly comic tortured artist may be an effective device, but the writer must handle this type with care.

15. Wise man: The scholarly mentor is a time-tested element of many classic stories (think Merlin, or Yoda), so any such character must possess distinct traits. Perhaps your story’s wise man is brilliant about some things but inept concerning others — he needs his protégé’s help in affairs of the heart, or, like the absent-minded professor, with whom he shares some characteristics, is a sage when it comes to intellectual areas but is at a loss when it comes to practical matters.

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6 Responses to “15 Stock Characters — and How to Restock Them”

  • opsimath

    Well! You have given us a fascinating list of characters and told us, essentially, that we shouldn’t use any of them in our stories. It does make me wonder just who we might be permitted to write about – or is this not so much a ‘writing help’ blog as a ‘don’t you dare try writing’ blog?

    Writing is difficult at the best of times, impossible at most and this really doesn’t help.

    I’m sorry if I have taken hold of the wrong end of the stick, but this seems to me to be nothing but discouragement.

  • Mark Nichol

    Opsimath:

    I thought that my intention was clear. There are only so many story templates and so many character templates, but I wrote this post to remind writers that they should not be content with dusting off stock characters and shoving them onstage: Find something interesting and unexpected about your ingenue or your sidekick — throw in a twist — or the character is likely to lie flat because you’ve given it nothing to work with.

  • Meg Brookman

    Excellent, Mark. Your title and acute advice on how to restock stock characters got my writing juices flowing this morning.

    I’m not sure whether this link: (http://www.thewritersjourney.com/) might be of use to Opsimath but I have found it valuable. I’m certain others here could offer many more resources for steering nascent writers and old pros alike away from that nearly universal and involuntary reach for banal, overused characters.

  • Sally

    Thanks, Mark, for some great advice.

    It is useful not only to budding authors but also to RPGers (aficionados of Role-playing Games) such as I.

  • Rachel Kelley

    Accurate and interesting! It inspires one to dig deeper than that superficial label. This isn’t to say you can’t have a character that falls under the broad umbrella types you’ve listed, just that we give them more to work with. Keeps them interesting and unique.

    Thanks for the post!

  • Derek

    There’s nothing wrong with having a character represent a cliche. Nothing can ever be completely original. The key is to write that cliched character in an engaging and vivid manner. A stale character is a stiff book.

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