I wanted to tackle this topic because it’s becoming increasingly relevant in a movie culture that’s all about sequels and spinoffs, and also because I touched on “funny characters” in my post about “cool characters.”
There’s a belief among moviegoers and critics that comic relief characters can’t carry their own movies. The argument is that with the weight of the story on them, funny characters either a) become too serious in order to advance the plot, or b) are too silly to make people care about their stories.
I disagree with this assessment as much as I disagree with the (rapidly fading) belief that female protagonists can’t carry a film, which I will expand on later.
Let’s explore some recent examples:
Puss In Boots
It killed me that the movie wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, because I knew people would blame the film’s mediocre quality on the fact that Puss can’t hold his own as a main character.
The problems don’t come from Puss though, because they changed his character. Seriously. Watch Shrek 2. Puss is a sneaky, conniving character who gleefully asks to shave Donkey in his sleep and takes money to kill an ogre. He’s a pretty scummy character, admittedly a scummy character with his own code of honor. In Puss in Boots, he’s repainted as a smooth-talking outlaw with a heart of gold. Boring.
Sure, you can argue that it’s a prequel and maybe he got saucy and immoral later in life, but then doesn’t that negate the whole redemption plot that happens in Puss In Boots?
The second problem is the unexciting, overdone plot. Which is LITERALLY IDENTICAL to the plot for Pirates Of The Carribean: On Stranger Tides, another movie that gave a comic side character the spotlight.
Pirates Of The Carribean: On Stranger Tides
Pirates 4 went in the opposite direction of Puss In Boots, turning Jack Sparrow into a caricature of himself and depriving him of purpose.
You’ve probably heard that each character you create has to want something. Badly.Puss in Bootsat least got that right: Puss desperately wants to restore his honor so his adoptive mother can be proud of him. Jack doesn’t want anything, not really, unless you count stumbling drunkenly from point A to point B without getting killed. He’s not an active character.
I would argue that the subplot with the mermaid and the priest is more interesting because both of those characters want something and actively pursue it. The mermaid wants to survive and the priest is determined to protect her. Because they want something, they propel their own story, rather than letting it propel them as Jack does.
The disappointing thing is that Jack is much more interesting when he wants something. Think Curse of the Black Pearl, that pistol with one bullet. In the beginning of the film he points the gun at Will and begs him to move because the bullet is meant for someone else. He wants to put that bullet in someone’s head, and he’s willing to risk his life rather than shoot the wrong person. That’s purpose, and that makes Jack intriguing.
This line of thinking goes as far back as Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s fools are often his smartest, most articulate characters, but they’re never leads. Which I think is severely unfair. I even wrote a play about it, I was so annoyed (it’s called “Jacks and the Fourth Wall.” Tell yo friends).
There’s actually extensive scholarship about the fool in “King Lear” that Shakespeare had to cut him out of the second half because he was taking over the play. You know why? Because he was a GREAT CHARACTER.
Seriously. It’s implied he had strong loyalties to Cordelia and was angry when Lear sent her away, he’s wildly passive-aggressive, and even though his boss is nuts, you can tell that he cares for him, just a little. He’s hilarious and he’s a well-rounded character.
So much so that Christopher Moore was able to write a whole (AWESOME) book from his perspective.
Fool is “King Lear” as told (and orchestrated) by his jester, Pocket. It shifts the quintessential Shakespearean tragedy to the perspective of a comic side character, and it works. because Moore crafts Pocket as a full character with his own agenda, dreams and demons without sacrificing his sense of humor. Pocket has a purpose outside being funny, but he’s still hilarious.
I read an article recently (I can’t remember where, I wish I could) that addressed the idea that female superhero movies are inevitably bad. They pointed out that this belief comes primarily from movies like Elektra and Catwoman. When The Hulk failed, no one blamed it on a male protagonist. Elektra and Catwoman failed because they sucked as films, not because they featured female protagonists.
The same can be said for stories with comedic main characters. They can carry a story (an awesome story!) as long as they’re multidimensional and want something badly, and as long as the plots you write for them aren’t rote and boring.
“Being funny” is a trait, not a character motivation. Comic characters can carry a story, but comedy alone can’t carry them.