Tag Archives: playwriting

Can comic relief characters carry a story?

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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

I have to say, I was pretty excited for this movie. The commercials looked hilarious and I loved Puss in the Shrek series.

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.

Fool

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.

Read it. Seriously. It’s great.

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.

Character Bootcamp: Part 1

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So I love characters. I love making them. I love learning about them. I love when they do things I don’t expect. If I had to pick one strong point of my own writing, it would probably be characters. Therefore, I would like to introduce…

Character Bootcamp: Part 1
Knock them off their high horse.

When I first started writing, I was sure of one thing. There were funny characters, and then there were cool characters. Funny characters could slip and fall in mud, blurt something they meant to keep secret, make awkwardly nerdy references at serious moments.

Cool characters, however, were blessed with flawless coordination, a total inability to be ruffled, and a lack of surprise at the world around them. They couldn’t step in dog poop, they couldn’t get sick and babble nonsense, they couldn’t accidentally walk into a wall in a dark room. Because they were cool. And cool characters were untouchable.

I was sure of this dichotomy. That is until I realized how fun it is to screw with cool characters.

I’m serious. It’s SO. MUCH. FUN.

Case and point: Loki from Avengers.

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He’s pompous. Theatrical. He’s such a clever manipulator that they actually MUZZLED him at the end of the movie so he couldn’t talk. He was in charge of a massive alien army and had a cool power staff. Loki is a serious, seriously cool threat.

And yet the best (and funniest) moments in Avengers came when the unparalleled Joss Whedon showed us that even power-hungry deities can be a little, well, pathetic. Without spoiling anything, I’m referring to “performance issues” and “puny god.”

When we see the coolest characters debased, when we get to laugh at them, it shows us that there’s someone like us under all the posturing.

There was an Entertainment Weekly Review of “Archer,” “Eastbound & Down” and “Delocated” that used a phrase I absolutely loved. They were discussing how viewers can keep watching shows that feature offensive egomaniacs and said “How can these offensive men remain so watchable? They’re all self-assured goofballs who are regularly punished for their hubris. The message of this trio of shows is reassuring: A-holes — they’re just like us!”

I couldn’t figure out why I loved “Archer” so much until I read that review. It’s because Archer, who’s pretty much James Bond without any semblance of a moral code, is regularly humiliated by mommy issues, a crippling fear of crocodiles and his own incompetency. You put up with his ego because you know he’s going to get screwed over soon anyway. And you almost kind of like him for it.

So try it. Go against all your instincts and walk that mysterious elf warrior right into a tree, then watch how flustered he gets when he tries to regain his coolness (it’s okay to giggle at him—he can’t hear you). Punish your characters for their hubris. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a comedy or a serious epic. Readers want to know that characters aren’t above them.

Character Examples: Zuko from “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” Howl from Howl’s Moving Castle, Skulduggery from Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy, pretty much everyone in “Supernatural”