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. 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:
It is unclear from where 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.
The Roman playwright Plautus 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):Old man, probably a miser – senex iratus
Young man in love, possibly the miser's son, who rebels against authority – adulescens amator
Clever or cunning slave – servus callidus
Stupid slave – servus stultus
Hanger-on (parasite) or flatterer – parasitus
Courtesan – meretrix
Slave dealer or pimp – leno
Braggart soldier – Miles Gloriosus note; Swaggering Soldier
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.
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, Aphthonius, and Priscian, shared this belief and sought to explore the workings of human nature.
Stock characters also feature heavily in the comic traditions of Kyōgen in Japan and Commedia dell'arte in Italy; in the latter they are known as tipi fissi (fixed [human] types).
According to Dwight V. Swain, a creative writing professor and prolific fiction author, all characters begin as stock characters and are fleshed out only as far as needed to advance the plot.
According to E. Graham McKinley, "there is general agreement on the importance to drama of 'stock' characters. This notion has been considerably explored in film theory, where feminists have argued, female stock characters are only stereotypes (child/woman, whore, bitch, wife, mother, secretary or girl Friday, career women, vamp, etc.)." Thus, the subject of female stock characters has attracted scholarly attention as seen in the work of Ulrike Roesler and Jayandra Soni whose work deals "not only with female stock characters in the sense of typical roles in the dramas, but also with other female persons in the area of the theatrical stage..."
Andrew Griffin, Helen Ostovich, and Holger Schott Syme explain further that "Female stock characters also permit a close level of audience identification; this is true most of all in The Troublesome Raign, where the 'weeping woman' type is used to dramatic advantage. This stock character provides pathos as yet another counterpoint to the plays' comic business and royal pomp."
Tara Brabazon discusses how the "school ma'am on the colonial frontier has been a stock character of literature and film in Australia and the United States. She is an ideal foil for the ill mannered, uncivilised hero. In American literature and film, the spinster from East – generally Boston – has some stock attributes. Polly Welts Kaufman shows that 'her genteel poverty, unbending morality, education, and independent ways make her character a useful foil for the two other female stock characters in Western literature: the prostitute with the heart of gold and the long-suffering farmer's wife.'"
In the United States, courts have determined that copyright protection cannot be extended to the characteristics of stock characters in a story, whether it be a book, play, or film.