Stock Characters: How to Spice Up the Usual Suspects as an Actor

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Photo Source: Netflix/Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros/Lucasfilm

For as long as stories have been told, there’s existed damsels in distress, bullies with hidden hearts of gold, and villains donning devilishly large mustaches to twirl. Stock characters are the backbone of narrative—if you want a career as a performer or creator, you’re guaranteed to come across them now and again. But just because something has been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done well. Below, we’ll dive into the history of stock characters and offer advice on making archetypes your own.

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What is a stock character?

A stock character is an easily recognized archetype indicative of different types of fictional genres. They are usually portrayed in a way that relies on shared cultural knowledge.

Stock character examples

This list of stock characters includes some of the most prominent types, with examples from film and TV. 

  • Action hero: the fast-thinking (and acting!) hero of an action story, such as James Bond (James Bond franchise), Indiana Jones (“Indiana Jones” franchise), Ellen Ripley (“Alien”), and Elizabeth Swann (“Pirates of the Caribbean”)
  • Airhead: a usually female character who is extremely ditzy yet lovable, such as Cher Horowitz (“Clueless”) and Karen Smith (“Mean Girls”)
  • Antihero: the non-heroic protagonist whom the audience still wants to root for, such as Deadpool (“Deadpool”) and Harley Quinn (“Suicide Squad”)
  • Boy/girl next door: a nice, attainable, attractive but not stunning friend-turned-love-interest, such as Pam Beesly (“The Office”), Cory Matthews (“Boy Meets World”), and Mary Ann Summers (“Gilligan’s Island”)
  • Chosen one: someone fated to save the world, such as Katniss Everdeen (“The Hunger Games”), Harry Potter (“Harry Potter” franchise), and Neo (“The Matrix”)
  • Crone/hag: an older woman who often has witchy powers, such as the Wicked Witch of the West (“The Wizard of Oz”) and Maleficent (“Sleeping “Beauty)
  • Damsel in distress: a beautiful woman who needs to be rescued, such as Princess Buttercup (“The Princess Bride”), Princess Leia (“Star Wars” franchise), and Sleeping Beauty (“Sleeping Beauty”)
  • Dark lord: a powerful wizard with nefarious plans, such as Sauron (“The Lord of the Rings”) and Voldemort (“Harry Potter” franchise)
  • Everyman/woman: a normal person whom viewers find easy to relate to, such as Bilbo Baggins (“The Hobbit”) and Dr. John Watson (“Sherlock Holmes”)
  • Femme fatale: a seductive, deceitful character often found in neo-noir films who uses her feminine wiles to get men to do her bidding, such as Catwoman (“Batman” franchise), Amy Dunne (“Gone Girl”), and Catherine Tramell (“Basic Instinct”)
  • Final girl: the last woman left alive in a horror movie, such as Julie James (“I Know What You Did Last Summer”), Sidney Prescott (“Scream”), and Laurie Strode (“Halloween”)
  • Hardboiled detective: a jaded investigator who relies on alcohol and less-than-legal means to get through the day and get the bad guy, such as Philip Marlowe (“The Big Sleep”) and Perry Mason (“Perry Mason”)
  • Igor: the hunchbacked assistant to a mad scientist, such as Igor (“Young Frankenstein”) and Riff Raff (“The Rocky Horror Picture Show”)
  • Jock: a popular, athletic, often dumb character, such as Harvey Kinkle (“Sabrina the Teenage Witch”) and Finn Hudson (“Glee”)
  • Knight-errant: a knight who typifies chivalric values while on a journey of love and discovery, such as Obi-Wan Kenobi (“Star Wars” franchise) and Doctor Who (“Doctor Who”)
  • Loner: a lone wolf outcast, such as Travis Bickle (“Taxi Driver”) and Wednesday Addams (“Wednesday”)
  • Lovable loser: a character that experiences ongoing hardship, often in a comedic way, such as Sue Heck (“The Middle”) and Josh Nichols (“Drake & Josh”)
  • Mad scientist: a scientist, professor, or other intellect who is at their best when eccentric, such as Dr. Emmett Brown (“Back to the Future”), Professor Philip Brainard (“Flubber”), and Victor Frankenstein (“Frankenstein”)
  • Manic pixie dream girl: an attractive, energetic young woman whose sole narrative role is to provide purpose to a male protagonist, such as Claire Colburn (“Elizabethtown”) and Polly Prince (“Along Came Polly”)
  • Mean girl: a queen bee who bullies lesser-thans, such as Regina George (“Mean Girls”) and the Heathers (“Heathers”)
  • Miser: an elderly, cruel penny-pincher hoarding wealth, such as Ebenezer Scrooge (“A Christmas Carol”) and Mr. Burns (“The Simpsons”)
  • Nemesis: an evil foil whose abilities are at least as potent as the hero, such as Darth Vader (“Star Wars” franchise) and Nurse Ratched (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”)
  • Nerd: someone whose intellect and obsessiveness greatly outweigh their social skills, such as the characters (besides Penny) of “The Big Bang Theory”
  • Outlaw: a lawbreaker who lives on the outskirts of society but in a romanticized way, such as Robin Hood (“Robin Hood”) and Thelma and Louise (“Thelma & Louise”)
  • Pirate: a caricature of the adventurous high seas pirate—think peg leg, eye patch, tricorn hat, and exclamations of “Arrr!,” such as Captain Hook (“Peter Pan”) and Captain Jack Sparrow (“Pirates of the Caribbean”)
  • Prince charming: a charming prince (fittingly) whose duty is to rescue the damsel in distress, such as the eponymous characters in most Disney Princess films
  • Sex worker with a heart of gold: a sex worker who is also highly ethical, such as Vivian Ward (“Pretty Woman”)
  • Shrew: a woman known for her nagging and dislike of men, such as Kat Stratford (“10 Things I Hate About You”)
  • Sidekick: the protagonist’s trusty companion, such as Samwise Gamgee (“The Lord of the Rings”) and Ron Weasley (“Harry Potter” franchise)
  • Starving artist: a bohemian creative who sacrifices financial gain in the name of art, such as Christian (“Moulin Rouge!”) and the characters of “Rent”
  • Straight man: a serious-acting sidekick whose somber behavior makes their funny companion seem more extreme by comparison, such as Jim Halpert (“The Office”) and Carly Shay (“iCarly”)
  • Superhero: someone who uses their superpowers to protect the public from danger, such as the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Tomboy: a young female character who behaves in stereotypically masculine ways, such as Scout Finch (“To Kill a Mockingbird”) and Merida (“Brave”)
  • Town drunk: a down-on-their-luck character who is usually inebriated, such as Bobby Singer (“Supernatural”) and Otis Campbell (“The Andy Griffith Show”)
  • Tragic hero: a largely admirable character whose hamartia causes their demise or downfall, such as Jay Gatsby (“The Great Gatsby”) and Anakin Skywalker (“Star Wars” franchise)
  • Vamp: a seductive, often goth female character, such as Morticia Addams (“The Addams Family”) and Lorena Krasiki (“True Blood”)
  • Villain: an antagonistic wrongdoer who opposes the story’s hero, such as Ursula (“The Little Mermaid”) and Leatherface (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”)
  • Wise fool: someone who appears to be foolish, but whose wisdom emerges throughout the course of a narrative, such as Forrest Gump (“Forrest Gump”) and Luna Lovegood (“Harry Potter” franchise)
  • Yuppie: a business-oriented city slicker of the ’80s and ’90s, such as Patrick Bateman (“American Psycho”) and Louis Winthorpe III (“Trading Places”)

How to play a stock character in a unique way

Gone Girl

“Gone Girl” Courtesy 20th Century Fox

It might seem as though performing a stock character is a standard acting exercise. However, following these steps can help you make your stock character something truly memorable. 

Study your character. Engage in rigorous character study so that you can understand who your character is and why they behave the way they do. Immerse yourself in the character’s meaning and history on sites such as All the Tropes, TV Tropes, and Fandom. For instance, Rosamund Pike studied “the heritage of female antiheroines” when she took on sociopath Marla Grayson in “I Care a Lot.” “I wanted to look at other films that have unlikable female characters and see how far [they] could push it and have them still be fun to watch,” she said in an interview with Backstage. “Just finding the truth of her, finding my Marla backstory. I don’t have to encumber an audience with that, but I have to know it.”

Think of archetype over stereotype. Although stock characters are steeped in stereotypes, that doesn’t mean your performance needs to be. Instead, consider the universal archetype that informs your character while embracing nuances and subtleties that might set them apart.

RELATED: How to Build a Character

In “(500) Days of Summer,” Zooey Deschanel initially portrayed the titular Summer as a manic pixie dream girl: quirky, adventurous, and capable of completing the male protagonist simply by the power of her existence. However, Deschanel added complexity to her portrayal to match Tom’s slow burn discovery that Summer is a full-fledged human being and not just an idea to project his feelings onto. For example, in the final bench scene, Deschanel portrayed the high-pitched giggles and doe-eyed eye contact innate to the manic pixie dream girl stereotype, but she interspersed these acting choices with a flat affect and forward gaze. These ambiguities added complexity to her character and challenged the stock character’s predictability. 

Get physical and vocal. Use body language such as hand movements, facial expressions, and body movements, positions, and use of space to embody your character physically. Try out different types of speech patterns and dialects to create unique vocalizations that match your stock character. To play airhead—or is it wise fool?—Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde,” Reese Witherspoon exemplified the performativity of gender with her walk, talk, and bend and snap. She told us that to get into her characters, she asks, “How do they walk through the world? Do they diminish themselves? Do they take up space?”

Strive for repetition with variation. Whether you’re leaning into an archetype or subverting it from within, it can be helpful to think about performing stock characters as a form of adaptation—the joy of which lies in “the pleasure of repetition with variation,” according to academic Linda Hutcheon.

When viewers recognize a stock character, they experience an intertextual hailing of past encounters with that character. On “Shameless,” for example, William H. Macy plays town drunk Frank Gallagher in a complex way that responds to the character type without replicating it. Frank is nearly always drunk, which Macy played to great (and extremely comical) effect; however, he adjusted his performance to portray different levels of drunkenness and states of mind. “For a scene that takes place at 11 o’clock in the morning, well, that’s a four-beer buzz, as opposed to 11:30 at night, when Frank’s speech is very slurred,” he explained. While it’s clear that he’s performing a town drunk stock character, Macy’s nuanced acting choices make the part his own. To capitalize on collective knowledge in your own acting, consider the ways that you can point toward and problematize tropes through your performance.

Add the element of surprise. Variation is exciting due to being unpredictable. While you should lean into your stock character’s known characteristics to properly perform their narrative role, a surprising acting choice can make you stand out. “An actor’s job is to know the breadth of human possibility and the depths of his or her own possibilities,” explained director Marcus Geduld. “He or she must pull from this well and surprise us.”