Of the many challenges a screenwriter faces when writing a script, none might be more complicated than the nebulous notion of characterization. The people you populate your story with have such a significant influence on whether the script is received positively or not. Because of this, how one writes a character is essential. Today, I'm going to define stock characters and make an argument for why they can be helpful in your script.
Usually, when writers discuss characters, the conversation focuses on how to "write a great character." That's all well and good, but not every character in your script needs to have the depth of Othello. And, not every character is the main character.
A stock character is a fictional character based on common social or literary stereotypes. These characters usually rely on stereotypes for their names, mannerisms, and characteristics. For example, a stock character could be the jock who shows up to make life hell for our protagonist and doesn't contribute to the storyline beyond being a bully.
While stock characters primarily remain in the background, they are vital in providing relationships and interactions with the main characters of the particular story.
Imagine walking into the local supermarket. This supermarket's special because it has a "character" aisle, a one-stop location to pick up any type of easily replicable character you like at the drop of a hat. In other words, the characters are stock.
This is broadly where the phrase comes from—most of the time, writers associate originality and singularity with good character development. To be fair, this is often a reasonable assumption. Some of the greatest characters we have in movies are great precisely due to what makes them different from millions of other characters that have hit the big screen.
The number of stock characters is theoretically endless. Any character could theoretically be a stock character as long as they are an identifiable character type that seems replicable. A stock character can even be a kind of character that shows up time and again in a creative's work (like, infamously, dead wives in the films of Christopher Nolan). Of course, it's always worth knowing about character tropes to stay away from.
Some examples of stock characters include:
Stock characters are closely related to archetypes. Character archetypes are consistent versions of a particular thing. What does this mean? An archetype is a shape that a character follows in a story. In storytelling, this means a character archetype identifies the core traits patterns of a type of person.
For example, “The Chosen One” is a well-known character archetype where a character is pulled from their ordinary lives and set on a quest that only they can solve with their unique skill or ability. In The Matrix, Neo would be the “Chosen One.”
Now, what’s the difference between an archetype and a stock character?
A stock character falls between an archetype and a stereotype. Stock characters contain information and characteristics that the audience will recognize, yet they are usually less detailed and developed than an archetype. Archetypes can be nuanced and unique where a stock character would likely be predictable and less complex. A shopkeeper that has a one line exchange with the protagonist or an unnamed classmate are examples of stock characters.
In Iron Man, Phil Coulson begins as a stock character. He embodies the “polite but useless bureaucrat” behavior. There isn’t much more to him than that. However, over the course of time, through various cameos, shorts and the television series, Agents of SHIELD, Coulson evolves. Through character development, he eventually embodies the archetype of “The Leader.”
Many people new to the screenwriting business assume that stock characters are used because the writer is lazy and couldn't be bothered with coming up with something original. But that isn't necessarily true. So, why do stock characters get used at all?
The first reason is that the writer's skill may not be up to snuff. Although it is a little blunt, there's no denying that writers who aren't at the top of their game are more likely to use stock characters than writers who are excelling in the business. Stock characters have the whiff of someone who is still finding their original voice and can only copy what has come before.
Stock characters also can come from the editing process. What makes a character unique or original may hit the cutting room floor if it means making the overall story better. For example, imagine a film where the comedic side relief character gets a scene where they get to demonstrate why they are so much deeper than the audience imagines. However, the director decided that the film's pacing is better without the scene. This can turn an original character into a stock one.
As you can see, there's a lot of negative sentiment around using stock characters… so why did I start this article by saying that you should use them?
Despite their negative reputation, stock characters are an exceptionally useful tool in the screenwriter's toolkit if used correctly. The key is to realize that stock characters are not the final product but a foundation upon which you can build.
So, for example, let's imagine that you've realized your script needs a comedic relief character to liven things up. Great, but writing a comic relief character is easier said than done. What kind of jokes do they tell? How do they fit in the story? What kind of person are they?
These are big questions, and one's well worth answering. However, these kinds of questions can bog you down and stop your progress. Never let perfect be the enemy of good. Instead, look at what movies have done before, take what you like, and try and write that kind of comedic character first. This is your foundation.
This character is not complete, but it should be enough to get you across the first draft finish line. When you're redrafting, you can flesh out the comic relief character more, but only because you have laid the foundation beforehand.
Many painters will lather their canvas in a kind of primer paint before they begin painting what they want. This is to make sure that all the other paints perform as best as possible once the time comes. We're essentially doing the same thing here.
Websites like tvtropes.com make for exceptional reading when trying to understand certain kinds of stock characters. For example, their page on comic relief characters has loads of different branching categories of the character type. There's so much material on that website, so I have no doubt you'll find plenty of inspiration and analysis about what makes that kind of character work.
Stock characters are maligned in the industry for many good reasons, but if you're anything like me, you'll see that they can be a helpful tool if deployed correctly. Use stock characters as building-blocks for developing fully fleshed out characters. If you do this successfully, you will be well on your way to laying the foundation of a nuanced and brilliant character.
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