Hi gang. Craig with you again. Earlier this year, I wrote a series here about The Hero’s Journey. This is a link to PART ONE.
Then I went on to write several Expansion Packs. Those are easy enough to find by using the search function at the very bottom of our page. I’m not giving you a link, because they cover a broad spectrum of topics related to story structure.
Today, I want to talk about stock characters. Call them tropes, call them central casting, whatever you like.
Look at those envelopes. There are a million of them, like Nutty Professor, Bully, Alpha Jock, you get the idea. One of my points is the envelopes are kind of flat, and so are these characters.
This is because we’ve seen them a million times. Stock characters are like tropes because they got there on a path of continued success. We’ve all seen the writing advice:
- Make every character the hero of his/her own story.
- Never use characters from Central Casting.
- Always change things up and give your characters inner demons and conflict.
This is great advice, but not always. Remember, Stock Characters got to be that way via success. We’ve all seen them a million times, but we enjoyed them.
One of the benefits is they come prepackaged and don’t require a lot of explanation. This helps you reduce word count when all you need is a stock character. I love cooking, but I also eat canned chili.
Let me explain it this way. Sometimes all you need is a barista. He/she prepares a cup of coffee that costs way too much, and that’s their sole purpose in the story. When you think about a barista, you probably think about a young person. They might be a bit quirky, maybe he has the beginning stages of short dreadlocks, maybe she has a ring through her lip. They’re usually cheerful.
If they’re going to drop a cheerful line or two, pass the coffee over the counter, then exit the story – go with the stock character.
Now, if your barista is going to be battling hordes of the undead in the next chapter, you have to look at the stock character differently. They are now carrying weight in the story, and you need more from them.
In this case, look at the stock character as a foundation. Strike that, look at them as a footing, which is even deeper down. You have to build from there. Perhaps the bubbly personality is only a work persona. Maybe they’re grumpy and determined outside the coffee shop. Maybe they have some meaningful tattoos, and a bit of backstory.
The point is, level them up depending on the amount of page time you’re going to give them. If your main character is going to stop by the coffee shop a couple of times in the story, you will stay fairly close to the stock character. If the coffee shop is the opening of every other chapter, you’re going to have to beef the barista up. When your barista is the main character, you’re going to have to power them way up.
Maybe you want to poke fun at the barista, similar to how Murphy Brown had a jillion secretaries. The barista is always someone new, but they’re really the Stock Character over and over. It’s played for laughs.
Many of you saw the Clint Eastwood film, Gran Torino. His character in the film was – Grizzled Veteran. That’s the name for the stock character, but I think you can understand the writers went way beyond that in developing Eastwood’s character.
Another decent example is in the Harry Potter world. Crabbe and Goyle were stock characters. They didn’t need to be any more than what they were. Rowling didn’t waste any ink giving them backstories or fleshing out their characters. They served a purpose and served it well. She also used a Gentle Giant in her stories. Hagrid wasn’t the main character, but he received more page time than Crabbe & Goyle. His character was more fleshed out, and we eventually got a bit of backstory for him.
Harry himself is a Chosen One. Because he is the main character, you get much more development than you got from Hagrid. Had she told the story from Ron’s perspective, we would have viewed Harry in a different light and he would have remained kind of mysterious and iconic.
I think it’s important to keep this sliding scale in mind for our stories. We can’t make everyone the hero of their own story or we lose the plot. Save that good advice for those who support the plot.
What do you think, gang? Do you have a different perspective on Stock Characters now? Are you still determined not to use them? They were good enough for Rowling and others. Order the sample pack and watch your mailbox. Maybe you have use for an Adorkable Female, a Whipping Boy, a Redshirt, Town Drunk, or Manic Pixie Dream Girl.