Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Literary Stock Characters

I have read hundreds of novels over the past few years and although I have enjoyed my time with the vast majority of them, it seems that I keep stumbling across the same characters time and time again. Oh, they may have different names and live in different time periods, but apart from these details, they come across as plug and play literary stock characters. It is amazing how many "best seller" authors do not truly understand how to develop realistic dialog, so their cast of characters regulary spews trite, hackneyed, pablum. I sometimes grow frustrated when they put scant effort into the development of secondary characters so that they are utterly forgettable, completely two dimensional. Most novelists tend to introduce 10 to 15 characters that we need to keep track of. Sometimes without detailed notes, it is easy to loose track of one cardboard cutout from another. Every once in a while I stumble across an author who brings in 25 to 30 characters. Those reads can be tough slogging unless the author is quite skilled. Of course character development, whether it is the protagonists or the antagonists, is the key that separates enjoyable but ultimately forgettable fare, from those few-and-far-between 5-star efforts.

Over the past year, I have been making a list of the most common literary stock characters that I have come across. These include:
  • Former Special Ops soldiers - It seems like every writer has to include a Rambo-type tough guy. This way they don't actually have to work to develop the characters they introduce and can rely on us to fill in the details using what we saw in the movies.
  • The reluctant hero - Think Bruce Willis in Die Hard. I'll do it, but I won't be happy about it. The tough man with a heart so tender it only needs a little bit of A-1.
  • The Ice Queen - Over the top Malificent, evil step-mother type. Enough already.
  • The magnate of dubious intelligence - The leader of the bad guys who is rich beyond measure, has scores of unquestioning minions, and who has risen to the brink of taking over the world, yet has the IQ of a bowl of Grape Nuts.
  • The Snidely Whiplash - The over-the-top, hand-wringing, ham of a bad guy, replete with the evil laugh and the ever-twistable mustache.
  • The Red-shirter - An omage to the red-shirt wearing Star Trek crewman who everyone knew wasn't coming back from the mission. Little dialog, space filler, amounting to no more than background noise to move the story along in a rather pedestrian manner.
  • The overly lucid druggie pixie girl - I have read several stories of the runaway girl who has been into the drug scene for years, but who is amazingly clear-thinking, deft, and clever at all the key points in the narrative.
  • The uber-powerful syndicate leader - Head of the secret society who seems to micromanage every iota of his world-wide empire. How does this guy find the time to do all the things that he supposedly does? How does he have the energy for so much monologuing?
When you come across an author who doesn't use such stock characters like a crutch, those are the pieces that often stand the test of time, that you remember, that you want to go back to.