The Last Word
Wanted: overweight but loyal friend wanted for heroine of mid-list novel. Can be intelligent or funny; have crush on heroine's boyfriend, or see him for what he really is. Job description includes several mortifying scenes, compensation depends on experience. Potential for self-improvement, e.g. growing a spine by the end of the book. Must be foil for protagonist.
We know who they are, these stock characters that make up the population of certain types of books. The "stock" simply defined is a type of character that is familiar, even expected of a story teller. Fairy tales and folk tales are full of them, depending on their familiarity to bring across a point in a type of shorthand. Handsome woodsman, hero. Black hat, bad guy. Golden hair, good girl. Crone with a cook pot, definitely trouble. They can be the sidekicks, or the heroes, or, as above, the Greek Chorus portrayed by a heroine's less attractive but devoted best friend. These people are born out of genre - detective novels, the novels of Louis L'amour, the cultural expectations of certain kinds of stories. They have their purpose in certain types of writing. A Western must have tough guys, a detective novel must have the loner gumshoe.
Raymond Chandler is probably most responsible for the stock "hard-bitten" detective. Are there ever any detectives that aren't solitary, troubled, recently widowed under terrible circumstances? Maybe it just wouldn't work to have a happy-go-lucky, well-adjusted detective. Maybe it's the nature of the work. Or, the nature of the genre. Readers like to root for a guy who has everything going against him, but who will rise to conquer the bad guys in the end.
In the life of a stock character, a coward becomes heroic, a loser turns into a lover. They are the vulnerable hero, the hooker with a heart of gold. Stock characters, beloved by many, completely predictable. Stock characters are stereotypes, but only because they are so familiar to us.
In John Irving's "Until I Find You," the narrator's mother, Alice, ostensibly searching for his abandoning father, lands in Amsterdam and quickly comes under the protection of the Hooker(s)-With-A-Heart-Of-Gold. She and her son, Jack Burns, live among these legal ladies of the night. The pros are really just like you and me, with an entertainment license. A little territorial, perhaps, but kind to abandoned wives. At Alice's insistence, Els and Saskia set her up for one night's trade on the Warmoesstraat, ready to step in to save her from herself if need be.
Stock characters need not be cartoons. Well-drawn and three-dimensional stocks can overcome their humble origins with good writing. Els and Saskia are a long way from the dame upstairs in an Old West saloon, but built on the same character type. Need dictates type. It wouldn't do to have a hardened madame: what function would she perform? Abandoned wives or prodigal daughters need protection, and who better to offer it - plus sage advice - than a woman of the world?
The first time a stock character appears in literature he is unique. Falstaff certainly was an original clown, but forever after fat, funny and drunken sidekicks given to brief moments of self-awareness have abounded. Jane Austen set the stage for romantic heroes - tall, dark, handsome silent types - although the Brontë sisters were no mean creators of the brooding hero.
A stock character can be the protagonist. In certain types of writing, again typically genre books like detective stories, romances, and the like, stock characters are the bones on which that type of book is built. A romance writer can go to the stockyard and pull out a nice selection of strong-silent-hero, accompanied by ditzy secretary whose focus is on her nails, and be tempted by the red-haired, eh, temptress. Stock heroes are not balding. Villains are not handsome. Vamps (different from the HWAHOG) wear short skirts and heroines blush. Certain qualities come with the job, depending on the description, and the author is obliged to use them.
The patient/more-intelligent-than-her-husband/comforting wife is another. What book with a married man as protagonist hasn't relied on the wife as moral compass for her hapless husband? And, always, the husband knows that his wife is all of the above, and yet still gets into trouble. Another example of stock character is the wise older woman, be she scrappy aunt, octogenarian grandmother, or interfering dotty neighbor. She is the crone in history, an agitator, a pundit, the rocky shoulder of comfort for our hapless, slightly unguided protagonist. The surly adolescent is an increasingly common stock character, frequently tossed into the mix with stories about struggling adults looking to find new lives. You can almost see the same kid each time, usually described with what is au courant in teenage attire for the period, monosyllabic, and reclusive. They serve to add heightened conflict, but sometimes I think authors should give these kids a break. Surely there are talkative, unconflicted youths out there.
It is probably a good idea to try to avoid using stock characters in most writing, the above cited genres excepting. The function of a stock character can be performed by other ably written characters simply by avoiding the stereotypes. However, well-written stock characters can be the baguettes to the protagonist's half caret diamond, and can overcome their humble origins. Melville's Queequeg is a fine example of the Greek Chorus: he prophesies doom, but is so memorably drawn, so unique among characters that his role, to foreshadow, supersedes mere stock character. Wanted: Tattooed prophet of doom to accompany protagonist on fishing expedition. Clothing optional.
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at susanwilsonwrites.com.