Stock Characters and Tropes

Doing Improv sometimes seems overwhelming.  In our tournament next weekend our teams will have only 1 min to create a 2 minute sketch integrating 4 different improv elements into a tightly knit narrative.  The kids will have to do this three consecutive times next Saturday.

One of the ways to make this task less daunting is to realize that most stories are retelling of familiar stock characters and tropes – not entirely new narratives handcrafted from the ground up.  In the little time we have left, I’ll introduce the concept of Stock Characters and Tropes to give the kids familiar and easy to use building blocks from which they can quickly construct tried and tested narratives integrating their 4 improv elements.

comm-del-castCommedia dell’Arte

The Stock Character was well documented as early as319 B.C. in Ancient Greece by Theophrastus, one of Aristotle’s students.  In his work “The Characers” Theophrastus introduced the 30 distinct “character sketches” of various character types including:

  • The Insincere Man (Eironeia)
  • The Flatterer (Kolakeia)
  • The Garrulous Man (Adoleschia)
  • The Boor (Agroikia)
  • The Complacent 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)

There are many more character types enumerated today (eg good cop/bad cop), but these 30 types are remarkably familiar to us today over 2,000 years later.  Our team members should clearly identify who their sketch character is and internalize their backstory.  Once this is done, as we have seen, much of the dialog writes itself and the narrative become more logical, focused and easier to improvise.

Literary Topos (or Tropes) are commonly reoccurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works.  With the short time we have to plan and perform our iimprov sketch, we need to rely upon familiar tropes to quickly give our audience the frame of reference they need to understand the elements of our story needed to create an interesting and funny skit.

There are great resources on the web that cataloger an immense variety of tropes used in tv, movies and books.  For our six selected Improv Game (themes:  Game/Quiz Show, Superhero, Infomercial, Award Show, Movie Preview, Dating Game), let’s just look at one for illustration to get an idea of how tropes can auto-pilot our Improv skit into a familiar and well-developed narrative.



1. The story’s inciting event is most often the murder of a loved one(s).  For example, in Spider-Man, Peter’s uncle gets killed because he wasn’t brave enough to take action.  One possible subversion is that the uncle got killed because Peter (or the uncle) did try to take action.  Another popular inciting event is something which suddenly gives the characters superpowers–common examples include scientific accidents, alien landings, living in New York City, and miracle operations.

2. The superhero usually gets his superpowers before the villain does.  Or, at least, we learn about the superhero getting his superpowers first.  It’s pretty rare for a supervillain to start his reign of terror before the hero has superpowers.

2.1. The superhero and main villain frequently gets their superpowers either from the same source or similar sources.  For example, Green Lantern and Sinestro both use power rings.  Spider-Man and the Green Goblin are both biochemically enhanced.  Batman and the Joker are both fueled by insanity.

3. Many villains and heroes share some sort of personal connection outside of work.  The easiest way to become one of Spider-Man’s villains is to meet Peter Parker.  (Green Goblin is his best friend’s father, Lizard employed him as a teaching assistant, Venom is a rival at work, Dr. Octopus once taught him at a science camp, Man-Wolf is J.J. Jameson’s son, etc).  This may be explainable if superpowers are mostly hereditary and/or highly visible in your story.  For example, mutants are a pretty small group of mostly outcasts in X-Men, so it makes sense that mutants have a better chance of knowing each other and/or being related to each other than random humans would.  Alternately, the hero might interact with a lot of people that are relatively likely to develop superpowers.  For example, Peter Parker knows a lot of leading scientists and New York City scientists are more or less certain to develop superpowers.

4. Nuclear weapons cannot destroy anything, but hand-to-hand combatants are largely unstoppable.  If there’s anything I’ve learned from fiction, it’s that a single ninja is the deadliest force in the galaxy.  In contrast, nuclear weapons are hilariously unable to kill anything. Even in Watchmen, where nuclear weapons are the grim doom hanging over everybody’s heads, it’s a giant psychic squid that actually destroys a city. In Heroes, Peter’s healing power can be stopped by a bullet to the back of the head but not a point-blank nuclear detonation. Also in Heroes, a nuclear detonation happens within 10-20 miles of New York City and nobody even notices. In these stories, nuclear romance killed more people (one of Dr. Manhattan’s lovers) than nuclear weapons did.

5. Nobody stays dead (comic book deaths never last).  Almost no superheroes die or lose their superpowers for an extended period in comic books.  It will never happen to bestselling characters, unless a reboot is already planned.  Novels don’t fall into this cliche as often. A novelist doesn’t need to do decades worth of stories for the same character, so it’s easier for a novelist to alter the status quo.

5.1. Primary superhero protagonists almost always survive and win, especially in comic books. In a superhero story, there is a 99%+ chance that the main characters accomplish their goal and survive. In contrast, in other action stories, it’s not unheard of that the heroes either fail to accomplish their goals or die accomplishing them.

6. New York City (or an obvious stand-in like Gotham) is the default setting for most superhero stories. I think it’s because the U.S. comic book and novel publishing industries are centered there and that’s what their editors are most comfortable with.  Also, they’d probably reason that it’s got a recognizable skyline, a large built-in audience, the brightest lights/biggest stage for a superhero, etc.  This isn’t necessarily a wrong choice, but I would be concerned if you chose NYC just because it’s the generic setting and you couldn’t come up with anything else. New York itself isn’t a problem, but generic settings are. In contrast, Gotham is obviously based on New York City, but definitely has a mood/character to it.

6.1.  95%+ of the world’s superpowered activity will usually happen in and around a single city.  Apparently, New York City has a global monopoly on cutting-edge science–either that, or scientists everywhere else have figured out how not to turn themselves into supervillains.  PS: If your superhero activity is overwhelmingly centered in a particular city, I’d recommend having an in-story reason why.  “That’s where the chemical spill/alien landing/origin story/whatever happened” is usually sufficient.

7. Most superheroes almost never interact with their parents, besides possibly a stirring death scene.  This is true of many non-superhero stories as well. Hollywood kills off or skips over the parents of protagonists (especially adult protagonists) so consistently that I was shocked in grade school to learn that my 40-something teacher’s parents were still alive. Disney had distorted my perspective so much that I had assumed that parents usually died by the time their kids became adults.


8. It’s rare to have a team of 3+ characters without at least one superstrong/tank character. In battle this character will usually be more or less indistinguishable from every other tank ever written.  If the character’s main fighting style is running at an enemy and trying to beat them senseless, I would recommend reevaluating whether readers will be able to handle several of this character’s fights without his style getting monotonous.

9. A hero’s superpowers will almost always come without any difficulties or inconveniences.  The vast majority of the people that have any sort of remotely undesirable side-effects with their superpowers are supervillains.  Some of the few heroic examples include Ben Grimm (physical issues), Slate (some unexpected side-effects, like being unable to take elevators anywhere), Beast (mainly social issues) and the Hulk (mental/personality issues).  Characters dealing with difficult superpowers are disproportionately male.

10. Some superpowers skew to one gender.  Psychic and magical superpowers are disproportionately female whereas superspeed and powersuits skew disproportionately male, for example. In terms of intelligence, the bell curve strikes with a vengeance: notably dumb characters, notably brilliant characters, and notably dumb-and-brilliant characters are all overwhelmingly male.  Female characters are disproportionately sensible and/or wise but rarely brilliant.

11. Superheroes learn very quickly.  How often have you seen Captain America or Spider-Man miss?  How often do they botch complicated acrobatic maneuvers?  Even in the first week on the job, they are implausibly well-polished.  Personally, I think that the growth arc of someone developing the mental skills and growing into the role is more interesting than many authors do.  Also… if a superhero gets superpowers and is immediately a competent superhero, that suggests that his opponents are either hopelessly incompetent and/or his superpowers are doing all of the work.  It’s not as impressive as it could be.


12. After getting superpowers, most protagonists decide very quickly that they want to be a superhero.  Especially if the character is not particularly brave and/or violent before getting superpowers, I would recommend putting more thought into it than that.  You’ve probably taken a week or more picking out an apartment or a car, right? Isn’t becoming a superhero–possibly the most violent and dangerous job in your story’s universe besides maybe henchman or mayor–a bigger decision than Volvo vs. Toyota? If a character decides more or less instantly, I would recommend tying that into something about his personality and/or the plot. (Maybe the character is impulsive or maybe there’s a personal crisis like the death of Uncle Ben or maybe there’s a city-wide emergency).

13. Virtually everybody that has superpowers will become a superhero or villain.  If Electro can’t figure out how to turn electrical superpowers into a multi-million dollar job offer from a utility company, he’s too dumb not to be in prison. Granted, regular jobs definitely won’t appeal to everybody.  For example, companies may be scared away from guys that had violent criminal records or major integrity issues.  Alternately, some characters might not want to make the sacrifices necessary to keep a million-dollar job.  (If a company is paying you that much, it will probably expect a heavy workload, such as dealing with emergency calls every time a supervillain attacks a power plant or destroys tens of power lines in the middle of the night).

13.1. In some cases, there’s some sort of conscription.  In these cases, the organizations are almost always callous and/or sinister secret agencies that bend over backwards to make their conscripts hate them. If I could offer some human resources advice to such agencies, I’d be very careful about unnecessarily antagonizing your workforce, especially superpowered combat specialists that don’t want to be there. Also, have you tried not hating your subordinates?

14. The youngest character will complain/whine the most.  When I was younger, I assumed this was mainly because some adult writers just didn’t like kids.  Since growing older, I’m dismayed to see that this comes up quite a lot for younger authors writing young characters.  Red flag: If you list the three most important or interesting things about the character and his youth makes the list, I am 75% sure he’s unlikable and 95% sure he’s boring.  There are at least 20 Scrappy Doos for every Ender Wiggin.

  • RED FLAG OF WHININESS: When an overly whiny character is unhappy about something, his main plan of action is usually letting people know how unhappy he is. Instead, have him/her do something about it.  For example, I’d much rather read about a drafted superhero trying to get himself fired or blackmail his boss into letting him go than someone who just complains about how much he hates being drafted.

15. If there’s a secret identity, side-characters will usually get uncharacteristically stupid whenever it’s necessary to keep the secret identity safe.  Lois Lane may be an award-winning investigative journalist, but glasses and gel fool her every time.  (Arguably, this may not be uncharacteristically stupid for Lois Lane, who once asked how many f’s there are in “catastrophic.”  Still, I’d wonder about the rest of Clark’s coworkers).

16. Women protagonists are almost always hot.   For example, geeks/dorks/scientists that actually look like geeks/dorks/scientists are almost always men, whereas the Invisible Woman will be played by Jessica Alba.  Nonhumans that actually look like nonhumans skew heavily towards male.  If there is a woman that looks like a nonhuman, she’ll probably have the ability to alter her appearance and is much more likely to use that power often (e.g. contrast Mystique with the Martian Manhunter).  Also, compare Vixen (a supermodel that sometimes gets as strong or as fast as a particular animal) to Beast Boy (a green guy who turns into animals).  She-Hulk looks like a supermodel that is green, whereas the Hulk is green and ugly. Please note that comic book guys tend to be a lot more attractive than actual guys as well.  The difference here is that the few unattractive heroes grossly outnumber any unattractive heroines.  As for villainesses, I think most are hot and several are ugly, but in-between is exceptionally rare.

16.1. Every comic book protagonist — even nerdy students and mild-mannered IRS agents — has beautiful women after him. In real life, if a supermodel was romantically interested in a government bureaucrat, she’s probably a spy.

17. The protagonist is a nondescript teenager without any notable goals.  Fortunately, this doesn’t show up in print as often as it does in submissions.  Publishers are bored of them, too.  PS: Nobody tries to write a nondescript protagonist.  One reason it happens is that writers commit themselves to casts that are so large that they can’t spend enough time developing the characters–a red flag there is that you have more than 4 superheroes on your main team.  Another potential issue is that writers sometimes write based on “what would I [the author] do in this situation?”, which tends to make characters blur together and act generically nice (which is usually forgettable and bland). Forget what you would do.  Show us what your characters would do.  Also, please make sure they have flaws and do some things that the audience isn’t meant to approve of.

18. Some superhero naming conventions recur for no readily obvious reason. 

  • [Adjective] Man/Woman/Boy/Girl.  One possible alternative is just going with an adjective (like Incredible or Kick-Ass) or an unusual adjective and a noun (like Grim Trigger).
  • [Color] [Noun] — if you go down this path, please make sure that the color actually adds something.  For example, Black Lightning has an element of contrast, whereas Black Panther does not.
  • [Animal] Man/Woman/Boy/Girl — one possible alternative here is an animal-themed noun or verb.  I’d much prefer Talon or Rake to Eagle-Man.

18.1. In comic books, first names and last names are disproportionately likely to start with the same letter.  Some relatively notable examples include Peter Parker, Lois Lane, Reed Richards, J.J. Jameson, Lex Luthor, Bruce Banner, Wally West, Scott Summers (Cyclops), Susan Storm (Invisible Woman), Otto Octavius, etc.  I have a more comprehensive list here.  This convention mostly faded out with characters introduced after the 1970s.

19. Most superheroes aren’t observably religious or politically inclined.


20. A scientist or any other super-smart character can perform more or less any mental feat.

20.1. Protagonist scientists get everything right, usually instantly. 


21. A super-scientist can perform miracles of science with a budget of $0 and/or a box of scraps in an Afghani cave.

21.1. Anybody with a scientific budget is probably an evil CEO.

22. The only mental miracle a brilliant scientist cannot perform with science is making substantial changes to the real world. 

23. Even (allegedly) brilliant scientists regularly use themselves as test-subjects.

24. Scientific experiments will never be replicable. 

25. Scientists perform highly dangerous experiments in densely populated areas.

26. Scientists will suddenly develop amnesia whenever it’s convenient to the plot.


27. No matter how catastrophic a superpowered brawl gets and how many buildings go down, civilian casualties will range from 0-1.

28. Most superheroes are non-lethal. 

29. No matter how many people he’s killed, a supervillain will never get the death penalty.

30. Supervillains can break out of prison at will.

31. Superheroes must have really bad lawyers–if they get arrested, they’re going to jail, even if the charges make no sense whatsoever.

32. Violence is the ideal solution to any crime. 


33. Most aliens/nonhuman protagonists are like humans, but better.

34. Many exotic civilizations are either disgustingly virtuous (like Switzerland) or one-dimensionally nefarious (like Sweden).

35. I’d like to see more interesting combinations of cultural traits.


36. No matter how smart a supervillain allegedly is, he will commit 95%+ of his crimes in a city that has superheroes.

37. When a supervillain holds a hero captive, it doesn’t work any better than when the police try putting a villain in prison.

38. Virtually every supervillain has violated multiple rules on the Evil Overlord List at some point.

39. Supervillains make their own money, but superheroes inherit it.  

39.1. Superheroes and villains are markedly more likely to be vastly wealthy than the population as a whole.

39.2. Anybody that uses superpowers to gain wealth is almost certainly a villain.


40. A supervillain’s power level affect’s the hero’s power level.  


41. Villains are far better at escaping than killing.

41.1. When antagonists chase after the protagonists, they will almost never catch them.  


42. Supervillains want superpowers and are more likely to acquire them intentionally.

42.1. A superhero may wish to get rid of his superpowers and/or be normal, but supervillains never do.


43. In superhero stories, most fictional U.S. cities have “City” and/or another English word in their name



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