Common Stock Characters and How to Rewrite Them, Part 1


Characters are the foundation of every story. Maycomb County is just another fictional southern  town without Scout and Jem to give it purpose. The little house on the prairie is quite literally four walls surrounded by grass if you don’t include the Ingalls family.

Often when we’re creating the characters in our stories, we unintentionally default to stereotypes, probably because we’re focused more on telling the story than taking the time to craft unique, diverse, not-at-all-typical characters to bring life to it.

Does that make us “bad” writers? Of course not. Every writer’s first draft is full of stock characters. We’re so attached to them we don’t even realize they’re there. But eventually, to move to the next level of storytelling, we have to learn to rewrite them.

Here are a few common stock characters (stereotypes in character form) and how to begin rewriting those characters to create a fresh, exciting story.

The starving artist

The stereotype: When we create the starving artist (let’s call him Fred) we do so partly because we’re trying to add an aura of realism into the story we’re telling. Fred, for our purposes, is a screenwriter with big dreams. It’s not that he’s not good at screenwriting. In fact, he might be amazing. But his lack of success (or maybe even luck) has forced him to get a “real” job, the funds from which he probably uses to fuel his ambitions.

It’s not “wrong” to portray realistic situations or people like Fred. Stereotypes are stereotypes because real situations and people have been portrayed over and over and over again. But there’s a way to keep it real without sticking to the stereotype.

The rewrite: Take Fred’s seemingly senseless dedication to screenwriting and refusal to “grow up and find another dream” and give that passion a root. Fred doesn’t want to make money, he doesn’t want to be famous, he doesn’t even really even like screenwriting all that much … or wouldn’t, if it weren’t for the root. The reason why he’s trying to keep that dream alive when he knows it’s unrealistic.

That root could be a person or an event or both. Formulating a motive behind the drive turns the starving artist into a bit of a selfless, well-meaning human being. There is a danger of falling prey to different kinds of cliches here (i.e., Fred promised his dying brother he would tell his story and make it a movie one day). But the important thing here is to give your stock character depth. Worry about the exact details when they’re necessary.

The manic pixie dream girl

The stereotype: Marcia skips in time to the heartbeat of her own world. Which would be considered a strong character trait (I am independent! I am true to myself!) if it weren’t for the character she influences in the process. Our story’s protagonist’s life is completely reconstructed due to that influence. The problem here, aside from Marcia’s character being grossly overdone, is that her personality alone becomes enough to trigger character development.

Which, again, isn’t wrong. We’re changed by people we meet all the time. What’s missing here is a series of accompanying story elements to justify both Marcia’s personality and the change in our protagonist (we’ll call him Arthur).

The rewrite: Marcia is a free spirit who can think and act for herself, and Arthur probably can and will learn a lot from the way she thinks and acts. But Marcia needs a deeper reason for thinking and acting the way she does. The manic pixie dream girl, usually, is shallow, as far as characters are concerned. She’s never given a motive for her quirks or her need to break Arthur out of his mold.

Give her one. Have him, through sequences of events, find it. Put a significant event in front of them and propel them through it as the story progresses, until they are emotionally exposed to one another in a way that justifies their growth and their bond.

Think Margo Roth Spiegelman here. If you’re not sure how that relates, check out this MPDG analysis. And if you love John Green, you’re in the right place, because so do we.

We went on a small unintentional rant about MPDGs so we’re going to have to split our original post into multiple parts! Hope you liked it … because there’s more where this came from.

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.

How to Construct Flat Characters


You probably remember learning about round versus flat characters way back in English class (er … maybe it wasn’t so far back for you. Lucky, lucky you). If you’ve filed that lesson away with all the other seemingly useless info you were forced to regurgitate in high school, it’s time to pull it back out.

Believe it or not, many of the things you learned in English, or language arts or whatever your education system called it, related to writing more than you realized at the time.

Characters who are “flat” are just as important to your stories as round ones. We’ll show you how—but first, let’s travel back to the basics for a second.

What Are Flat and Round Characters?

In a story, round characters are the ones that undergo significant development from the beginning of a story to the end. Your main character, for example, is usually changed somehow by events that occur or by reflecting on past events through narrative.

Flat characters, by contrast, do not change. That’s why we think of them as two-dimensional. We can also think of them as catalysts, if you’re more of a science-y thinker: while they still contribute to a story’s plotline, they aren’t changed by it. They stay the same from start to finish—someone who is cranky at the beginning of a story because of bad weather will still be just as cranky at the end.

Why Do Stories Need Both?

Think about real life. You come in contact with random people every day—sitting next to strangers on the train or subway, passing people on the street, buying coffee from a barista you only ever meet once. Not every single person you encounter in your lifetime is going to make a significant impact on the course of your future.

The same goes for stories. Main characters, whom the story focuses on, go through changes because that’s part of the story being told. The flat characters they come in contact with matter, but especially if they meet in passing, their changes occur off the page and outside the storyline. We just don’t see them. That doesn’t mean those characters aren’t still important.

We’ll go into more detail in the next section. 

How Do We Create Flat Characters?

Flat characters interact with round characters in big and small ways, sometimes maybe not even directly. As we mentioned above, though, it’s just like real life. They need to exist. One way to emphasize their importance is to introduce them, leave them in the back of your readers’ minds for a while, then bring them back. Here’s an example.

Let’s go back to our cranky-about-the-weather example. We’ll call him Greg (another ancient inside joke—if you remember this one you’ve been following this blog far too long for your own good). Greg hates rain. He gripes at anyone passing by about how he hopes they have a terrible day as he wades through puddles.

Enter our MC, Larry. Larry is a very unhappy, lonely guy. When he passes Greg on his way to work, and Greg tells him to have a terrible day, Larry spins around and gets into an argument with him. Then as the story progresses, Larry becomes significantly happier and less lonely. He remembers how it feels to be sad and alone even though he isn’t anymore. So at the end of the story, he passes Greg on the street again. This time when Greg tells him to have a terrible day, he tells Greg he hopes he has an extraordinary day, and walks away. The end.

This might mean a lot to Greg. He might go on to change his attitude, too. But we don’t need to see that. Because we don’t, that makes Greg our flat character. The reason Greg is important is because, through these two interactions, we see the effects of the significant changes Larry has undergone from the beginning of the story to the end. That’s important. Without Greg, this point becomes far less significant.

This is just one way to do it. You could end up writing in a flat character that also happens to be your MC’s best friend, who is there throughout most of the book. No two stories are a like: there is no right, wrong, better or worse way to construct a flat character. It’s not the character that matters as much as their interaction with the round characters in the story.

Round and flat characters need each other. You’ve probably constructed both types in your own stories before, maybe without realizing that’s what you were doing. Now you know: the strategy makes your character development symbolize more than just an attitude adjustment. It shows your readers, without telling them, that everything your MC has gone through matters. Even passing a cranky weather-hater on the street.

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.