A stock character is a fictional creation whose personality, speech patterns, attire and other characteristics are derived from stereotypes. Stock characters are usually easily recognisable to people familiar with the cultural types they represent.
History of the Stock Character
Stock characters have existed for centuries, since the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, when they were based on traits of mythological characters. Aristophanes' Greek comedy usually had three stock characters: the boastful imposter, his ironic opponent and the buffoon.
Aristotle was one of the first people to study character, but according to the Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia, "the study of the Character was conceived by Aristotle's student, Theophrastus, who introduced the 'character sketch,' ... and 30 character types ... each type ... an illustration of an individual who represents a group, characterised by his most prominent trait."
Examples of early stock characters, as classified by Theophrastus, included the insincere man, the flatterer, the boor, complacent man, talkative man, the penny pincher, offensive man, absent-minded man, unsociable man, superstitious man, the show-off, the faultfinder, the coward, the slanderer and more.
Greek and Italian Stock Characters
Stock characters are found in most literary genres, but they were popularised in Greek and Italian theatre. Some examples are:
Old Comedy of Greek Drama: imposter or self-deceiving braggart, buffoon and self-deprecating character. The playwright Menander created stereotypical cooks, merchants, farmers, soldiers and slave characters, plus the "Fisherman, Peevish Man, Promiser, Heiress, Priestess, False Accuser, Misogynist, Shipmaster, Widow" and others.
In Commedia dell'Arte, stock characters were separated into three groups: masters, servants and the lovers. A power struggle always existed between masters and servants; often a money-hoarding master is made a fool of behind his back. The servants, or zanni, from which the word 'zany' derived, are working people whose schemes propel both plot and humour. The lovers are easily manipulated, because they are concerned only with loving each other and oblivious to all else.
Stock Characters in English Theater
Some of the stock characters who started appearing in English theatre were similar to their predecessors, but some were unique. Examples categorised by genre and era are:
Medieval romances: damsel in distress; contemptuous dwarf; chivalrous, handsome young knight; wild man of the woods; and ugly old man married to a younger girl.
Elizabethan drama: braggart soldier, melancholic man, heroine disguised as a handsome young man, beautiful woman, gullible country bumpkin and the villain. Shakespeare, while known for developing a broad range of realistic people, also created some stock characters, such as The Fool, a pivotal character in many of his plays.
English Restoration: fops, witty couples and country bumpkins.
Nineteenth-century melodrama: noble hero, persecuted maiden, aristocratic villain, stalwart sailor, faithful servant, bumbling sidekick and aged parent.
Modern Stock Characters
Westerns: cowboy hero, civilised rancher, noble lawman, madam, prostitute-with-the-heart-of-gold, town drunkard, settler wife, and a Native American.
Modern detective fiction: hard-drinking private investigator, sexy "dame" and corrupt police officer.
Twentieth and twenty-first century media: various stock characters were heard on early radio shows, and many appear on television, in soap operas and sitcoms, as well as in movies.