A stock character is one which relies heavily on cultural types or names for his or her personality, manner of speech, and other characteristics. In their most general form, stock characters are related to literary archetypes, but they are often more narrowly defined. Stock characters are a key component of genre fiction, providing relationships and interactions that people familiar with the genre will recognize immediately. Stock characters make easy targets for parody, which will likely exaggerate any stereotypes associated with these characters.
In the United States, courts have determined that copyright protection can not be extended to the characteristics of stock characters in a story, whether it be a book, play, or film.
Examples and history
By the loosest definition, stock characters have been around ever since the tragedy of Aeschylus
, and Euripides
, being based upon the traits of mythological
characters. Although mythological characters are not representations of real people, they are a group that would have been recognizable to ancient audiences, and even back then, tended to fall into well-established group types. For example, Hephaestus
, and Prometheus
represented the fool character as "jesters to the gods."
In a stricter definition, stock characters originated in the theater. For example, the Greek Old Comedy of Aristophanes typically employed three stock characters: the alazon, the boastful imposter; his ironic opponent, the eiron; and the buffoon, known as the bomolochos. Furthermore, the furnishing of these prototypes of Old Comedy with accents, costumes, or props illustrated the desire of the playwright to have the audience readily recognize and relate with the character quickly. The servants wore short-sleeved cassock; parasites carried a short truncheon; rural deities, shepherds, and peasants held a crook; heralds and ambassadors had the caduceus; kings held a sceptre, heroes a club, and old men carried a crooked staff.
explored theories on the pursuit of happiness, he discussed the virtues of people surrounding him and, perhaps unintentionally, was the first person to study characters.
His Book IV of Nicomachean Ethics, after an outline of positive characteristics (e.g., "liberality," "noble-mindedness," "wit") encouraged in humans, sketched some characters based on their possession or lack of these characteristics. Examples include the "rich man of vulgar profusion," the "vainglorious," the "great-souled man," the “choleric,” the “good tempered man,” the “officious,” the “contentious,” the “self-detractor,” and the “buffoon."
In his Rhetoric, Aristotle explored how “young men, old men, men in their prime, well-born men, rich men, men of power, men of good fortune” varied emotionally. Although Aristotle’s work closely resembles what came to be known as the Character, Ethics and Rhetoric contained “disquisitions,” not Characters.
The study of the Character, as it is now known, was conceived by Aristotle’s student Theophrastus
. In The Characters
(c. 319 BC), Theophrastus introduced the “character sketch,” which became the core of “the Character as a genre.” It included 30 character types — twenty-six moral types and four social types. Each type is said to be an illustration of an individual who represents a group, characterized by his most prominent trait. The Theophrastan types are as follows:
- The Insincere Man (Eironeia)
- The Flatterer (Kolakeia)
- The Garrulous Man (Adoleschia)
- The Boor (Agroikia)
- The Complaisant Man (Areskeia)
- The Man without Moral Feeling (Aponoia)
- The Talkative Man (Lalia)
- The Fabricator (Logopoiia)
- The Shamelessly Greedy Man (Anaischuntia)
- The Pennypincher (Mikrologia)
- The Offensive Man (Bdeluria)
- The Hapless Man (Akairia)
- The Officious Man (Periergia)
- The Absent-Minded Man (Anaisthesia)
- The Unsociable Man (Authadeia)
- The Superstitious Man (Deisidaimonia)
- The Faultfinder (Mempsimoiria)
- The Suspicious Man (Apistia)
- The Repulsive Man (Duschereia)
- The Unpleasant Man (Aedia)
- The Man of Petty Ambition (Mikrophilotimia)
- The Stingy Man (Aneleutheria)
- The Show-Off (Alazoneia)
- The Arrogant Man (Huperephania)
- The Coward (Deilia)
- The Oligarchical Man (Oligarchia)
- The Late Learner (Opsimathia)
- The Slanderer (Kakologia)
- The Lover of Bad Company (Philoponeria)
- The Basely Covetous Man (Aischrokerdeia)
It is unclear wherefrom Theophrastus derived these types, but many strongly resemble those from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Despite the fact that Theophrastus sought to portray character types and not individuals, some of the sketches may have been drawn from observations of actual persons in Athenian public life. Although the preface of the work implies the intention to catalogue “human nature, associate[ed] with all sorts and conditions of men and contrast[ed] in minute detail the good and bad among them,” many other possible types are left unrepresented. These omissions are especially noticeable because each of the thirty characters represents a negative trait (“the bad”); some scholars have therefore suspected that another half of the work, covering the positive types (“the good”), once existed. This preface, however, is certainly fictitious, i.e. added in later times, and cannot therefore be a source of any allegation. Nowadays many scholars also believe that the definitions found in the beginning of each sketch are later additions.
New Comedy was the first theatrical form to have access to Theophrastus’ Characters. Menander
was said to be a student of Theophrastus, and has been remembered for his prototypical cooks, merchants, farmers and slave characters. Although we have few extant works of the New Comedy, the titles of Menander’s plays alone have a “Theophrastan ring": The Fisherman
, The Farmer
, The Superstitious Man
, The Peevish Man
, The Promiser
, The Heiress
, The Priestess
, The False Accuser
, The Misogynist
, The Hated Man
, The Shipmaster
, The Slave
, The Concubine
, The Soldiers
, The Widow
, and The Noise-Shy Man
Another early form that illustrates the beginnings of the Character is the mime
. Greco-Roman mimic playlets often told the stock story of the fat, stupid husband who returned home to find his wife in bed with a lover, stock characters in themselves. Although the mimes were not confined to playing stock characters, the mimus calvus
was an early reappearing character. Mimus calvus resembled Maccus
, the buffoon from the Atellan Farce
. The Atellan Farce is highly significant in the study of the Character because it contained the first true stock characters. The Atellan Farce employed four fool types. In addition to Maccus, Bucco
, the glutton, Pappus, the naïve old man (the fool victim), and Dossennus
, the cunning hunchback (the trickster). A fifth type, in the form of the additional character Manducus
, the chattering jawed pimp, also may have appeared in the Atellan Farce, possibly out of an adaptation of Dossennus. The Roman mime, as well, was a stock fool, closely related to the Atellan fools.
drew from Atellan Farce as well as the Greek Old and New Comedy. He expanded the four types of Atellan Farce to eight (not quite as distinct as the farcical types). The types include:
- Old man, probably a miser - SENEX IRATUS
- Young man in love, possibly the miser's son, who rebels against authority - ADULESCENS AMATOR
- Clever slave - SERVUS CALLIDUS
- Stupid slave - SERVUS STULTUS
- Hanger-on or flatterer - PARASITUS
- Courtesan - MERETRIX
- Slave dealer or pimp - LENO
- Braggart soldier - MILES GLORIOSUS
Plautus’s fool was either the slave or the parasite.
In revision of Theophrastus, Diogenes Laertius
published Ethical Characters
(Circa 230 BC), sparking interest in two lines of study.
The first is that of the character book. Imitators of Theophrastus including Satyrus Atheneus, Heracleides Ponticus, Lycon, and Rutilius Lupus wrote their own character sketches. Circa 212 BC, Ariston’s discourse on morality included several proud Character types and mimicked the Theophrastan style. Following Philodemus of Gadara’s work on “Self seeking Affability” and Ariston’s characters, evidence of acquaintance with the genre is present, however popularity of the portrait over the generalized stock figures in increasing. This may explain the gap of time from the beginning of the Common Era to the 16th century marked by an absence of character sketching.
The second field is the study of nomenclature. As the Character rose as a literary genre, many terms were coined in attempt to place labels on the new subject. The translation Theophrastus’ title is based on the terms charassein and Charakter, associated with the stamping of an impression. Rhetorica ad Herennium (c. 20 BC), attributed to Cicero, split the character up into two qualities: effictio, the description of physical appearance, and notation, the nature of man. Later in his De Inventione, Cicero divided the character, or conformation as he called it, into eleven points: name, nature (natura), way of life (victus), fortune (fortuna), physical appearance (habitus), passions (affectio), interests (studium), reasons for doing things (consilium), one’s deeds (factum), what happens to one (casus), one’s discourses (orationes). Seneca, too, played a part in providing labels for the new genre in his Epistulae Morale, using the terms ethologia and characterismos for characteristic conduct of moral types. Circa 93 AD, Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria discussed the effect of personality on rhetoric and in so doing, coined the terms ethopoeia, an orator’s imitation of another person’s character or habits, and prosopopoeia, the same thing, but with a dramatization of the person as well as the giving of his words. Other terms conceived in the period include figurae sententiarum and descriptio personae. Decorum, the rhetorical principle that an individual’s words and subject matter are appropriately matched, also became a relevant term, and would remain significant into the Renaissance.
Supersession by philosophy
The Romans' “perverse admiration for decorum,” is in part responsible for the deterioration and the resulting blackout period of the Character genre. During this blackout, the Character smoldered under the philosophies of such men as Horace
. In the Ars Poetica
(c. 18 BC), Horace drew pictures of typical men at various ages, from childhood to old age. Horace’s belief that “what is typical of a class should be observable in the individual,” was illustrated in his epistles classifying Achilles
as a man of rage and love, Paris
an impractical lover, and Ulysses
the model of virtue and wisdom. Others, such as Hermogenes
, and Priscian
, shared this belief and sought to explore the workings of human nature.
England, the study of the Character began its slow recovery, perhaps partly because the existence of feudalism
at this time created several clear types in society.
The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer centered around prototypical characters, including moral and professional types as well as astrological or physiological classifications. With works such as Vision of Piers Plowman (c 1380) and Everyman (c 1520) the use of allegorical characters, such as Dowel ("Do-Well"), Dobet ("Do-Better"), and Dobest ("Do-Best"), and Death, Everyman, Strength, Discretion, Beauty, Fellowship, Knowledge, Good-Deeds, and Avaricia, became a familiar device, not unlike the use of stock characters. Although both stocks and allegories will be recognized by society and represent an institution beyond the individual, stock characters are representative of actual men, while allegorical characters are horizontal studies of one tendency in all men. The English Mystery plays, also contained a form of prototypical character: the vice or devil, and the clown. Although some trace these characters no farther that our natural proclivity for fools, the devil and clown figures seem to have descended from the satirical interludes of the Grecian stage (the satyr play), the Fabula Atellana of Rome theaters, and the Exodiarii and Emboliaria of the mimes. Brant-Barclay’s Ship of Fools (1494) drew upon these simple characters of mystery plays, miracle plays, and morality plays to create this early source of strong medieval sketches.
Erasmus proved to have a deep understanding of the Character in his De Duplici Copia Verborum ac Rerum (1512). In Copia, Erasmus sketched the moral types of “amantis,” “luxoriosi,” “avari,” and “voracis,” as well as the “pretender to wealth.” Especially significant was his sketch of the “pseudoplutus,” which connected the Character with the type-personages of Plautus and Terence. Erasmus also painted vivid sketches in his Moriae Encomium (Praise of Folly) (1509).
Flourishing of ideas
At this point, the Character genre was on its way to being recollected, as evidenced by the many editions of Theophrastus published between the years 1527 and 1599. During these years, several additional sources, too, suggested the coming reemergence of the Character. Thomas Wilson
’s Arte of Rhetorique
(1553) made use of the term descriptio in sketching the pinch-penny. Richard Sherry
’s Treatise of the Figures of Grammer and Rhetorike
(1555) revisited the terms characterismus
in imitating Erasmus. George Pettie
’s translation of Guazzo
’s Civile Conversation
(1586) included what may have been the first post-Ciceronian attempt to enumerate the divisions of society. Pettie’s divisions included "young men and old, gentlemen and yeomen, princes and private persons, learned and unlearned, citizens and strangers, religious and secular, men and women.” George Puttenham
’s Arte of English Poesie
(1589) also took a part in the nomenclature trend. Puttenham used the term prosopogrphia
describing sketches of real people and set it apart from the previously coined term prosopopoeia
, which Puttenham took to describe the personification of abstractions. Other significant titles of the period include Fraterinty of Vocabondes
(1561) by Awdeley
, Caveat or Warening, for Commen Corsetors
(1567) by Thomas Harman
, The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia
(1587) by Sir Philip Sidney
, Pierce Penilesse
(1592) by Nashe
, and Wits Miserie
(1596) by Lodge
The real impetus to establish a new genre came only in 1592 and 1599, when Isaac Casaubon
published the Greek text together with Latin translations, an elaborate commentary, and a ‘Prolegomena’ discussing literary connections. Casaubon coined the terms “Characters Ethici” and “Notationes Morum” and set the concept of the Character whirring with Renaissance spirit. Following Casaubon, Ben Jonson
produced several works highly influenced by the Character. Cynthia’s Revels
(1600) is said to contain the first genuine English Characters. Every Man Out of His Humour
(1600) and Volpone
(1606) also follow the Theophrastan model.
Shakespeare, too, contributed to the genre of Character, although not quite as straightforwardly as Jonson. Shakespeare was known for his remarkable ability to write a broad range of characters. Although he was interested in writing realistic character, in exploring various types, he, of course, hit on several stocks. Shakespeare especially employed the fool character in many of his plays: Feste in Twelfth Night, or What You Will, Lavatch and Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well, and Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice, Touchstone in As You Like It. In addition, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice has often been described as an antisemitic character designed to play into the prejudices of the time, and in this way he would also fit the definition of a "stock character" as well. However, he often settled on rounded characters, stock types with individualized twists.
The genre continued to climb with Joseph Hall’s Characters of Virtues and Vices (1608). Hall is thought to be responsible for the unquestioned emergence of the Character as a distinctive and acknowledged literary form. At last coining the term “character,” Hall presented nine virtuous and fifteen vicious types, all moral or psychological, based on Christian ideals. Among these types are the wise man, the honest man, the faithful man, the valiant man, the humble man, the patient, the truly noble, the good magistrate, the busy-body, the superstitious, the malcontent, the flatterer, the covetous, the vain-glorious, the hypocrite, the profane, the unconstant, the slothful, the ambitious, the envious, the unthrift, and the distrustful. Especially of note is Hall’s sketch of “the good magistrate,” for it is said to bridge the gap between innumerable analytic and satiric pictures of feudal Estates written before Hall and the numerous Characters of social and professional classes written after Hall.
Around the time of Hall, a new stock-based form was developing in England. The puppet tradition known as Punch and Judy involved a trickster on strings. Although the lazy, gluttonous Punch resembles Bucco and Maccus from the Atellan Farce, such a stock character is present in all stock pools. Such forms came easily with the new awareness of character building up in England.
The Character genre finally reached its pinnacle with Sir Thomas Overbury
’s A Wife: Witty Characters Written by Himselfe and Other Learned Gentlemen His Friends
(1614). The most famous of the 17th-century Character-books, Overbury included 83 types in his fullest edition. Of these, 32 are speculated to have been written by John Webster
, with others by Thomas Dekker
and John Donne
. In addition to the Theophrastan moral types, the Overburian characters include complex social types, including national representatives, women, and representatives of institutions. According to Overbury, his Character sketches are “pictures (real or personal) quaintlie drawne in various colours, all of them heightened by one shadowing.” His Characters include A Good Woman, A Virtuous Widow, A Worthy Commander in the Wars, A Nobel and Retired House-keeper, A Very Very Woman, A Fair and Happy Milkmaid, A Mere Common Lawyer, A Mere Scholar, A Mere Pettifogger, An Arrant Horse-Courser, An Excellent Actor, An Almanac-maker, An Improvident Young Gallant, A Revered Judge, Fantastic Inns of Court Man, A Drunken Dutchman Resident in England, Cleargy Hypocrites, Clerke Hypocrites, A Sailor, A Whore, A Jesuit, and several prison types.
Other character books
Although the character sketch is said to have peaked with Overbury, A Wife was by no means the last character book. On the contrary, as the character sketch became vogue, countless books continued to catalogue character prototypes. Some noteworthy works include John Stephens
’ Satyrical Essayes Characters
(1615) including 50 types, and John Earle
(1628) including 76 types. Eloquentiae Sacre et Humanae Parallela Libri XVI
(1619) by Nicholas Caussin
, includes many “epidictici characters,” moral and social types, and abstractions suggesting the origin of the types. Caussin alleges that “Garrulus” descends from Theophrastus and Horace; “Avarus, et Tenax” comes from Theophrastus and Plautus; and “Avarus Dives” is from Carthaginian saint Cyprianus. By 1665, the Character genre was so clearly defined that Ralph Johnson
in his Scholar's Guide from the Accidence to the University
, could outline the “Rules for Making a Character.” In 1688, the Character first extended beyond England and into the mainland of Europe. Jean de La Bruyere
’s Les Caracteres, ou les Moeurs de ce Siecle
was to become the first work of social criticism in French literature. La Bruyere systematically organized his types under the categories Of Works of the Mind, Of Personal merit, Of Women, Of the Affections, Of Society and Conversation, Of the Gifts of Fortune, Of the Town, Of the Court, Of the Great, Of the Sovereign and the State, Of Mankind, Of Opinions, Of Fashion, Of Certain Customs, Of the Pulpit, Of Free-Thinkers
Perhaps by chance, this seems to have coincided with the beginnings of the extemporal comedy
or commedia dell'arte
. Most likely having descended from the Atellan Farce and the Greek and Roman mime, commedia began with four stock characters, first known as magnifici
(magnificent ones) and zanni
(slaves), later receiving the names Pantalone
, and Scapino
. In 1667 the character of Harlequin
appeared in a comedy by Ravenscroft
. Succeeding La Bruyere, Novelty; or Every Act a Play
(1697) came to include Harlequin, Pantalone, Columbina
, and Clown
. Commedia flourished into a form that would mark the height of the stock character. Like in the Greek Old Comedy, stock costumes are important in assisting the audience in identifying the familiar type. The use of masks in Commedia helped the clear physical portrayal of the character. Masks also served to exaggerate the characters, aiding Commedia in its sense of satire. At no other point in theater history has a form so perfectly typifying the Character genre arisen.
The Innamorati or lovers of commedia dell'arte were stock characters in the sense that they appeared in every scenario, which often revolved around them. However, their lack of distinctive character was shown by their lack of masks, and the action took place about them, with other characters bringing about their fate.
Lists of stock characters