Friday, 2 October 2009

Comedy Characters And Where To Get Them

I've been reading some really good funny stuff recently, from Pratchett's new book Unseen Academicals to Rachel Green's An Ungodly Child to Toby Frost's amazing Space Captain Smith. It occurs to me that one thing most really good comic fantasy/sci fi/other books have in common is a collection of really good characters, usually with at least some inherent potential for funniness. Exactly how much seems to vary by the author. Frost seems to favour outrageously overblown variations on stereotypes, while Rachel's characters are at least superficially normal, at least until they start to speak or act. Pratchett seems to have gone from one to the other, starting with what we might call inherently funny character types (such as wizards who can't do magic, very old barbarian heroes, and six foot six "dwarfs") and drifting gradually towards characters who are perhaps more "normal", to allow a fuller story, the comedy coming more in what happens.

Since it's a genre I like to write, since characters are notoriously difficult to get right, and quite frankly since I haven't posted in a few days and I can't think of anything better to do, I thought I'd have a look at some ways of getting good comedy characters, hopefully with reference to those mentioned above (and probably also Tom Holt, since the odds of my getting through a post like this without mentioning him are- I just did, didn't I? Well, that's that out of the way)

  1. Remember that they are still characters. Even if they are going to be funny, even if you love the idea of them, make sure that they fit. Make sure that they do something relevant. Admittedly, in the case of a minor character that might be nothing more than to provide a suitably weird encounter to slow the pacing a bit towards the end of chapter three, but don't shove them in the work for the sake of it...
  2. Unless you really want to. This is the same warning as usual, really. Ultimately, do whatever works. Don't assume that I know everything (or indeed anything). As the great jazz guitarist Martin Taylor is apparently fond of pointing out, if it sounds right, it is right.
  3. Right, now that's out of the way... ideas. Where do you get them? Well, out of your head, obviously. But before that? Sometimes keeping your eyes open will provide suggestions. Truth really is stranger than fiction sometimes (though I suspect nobody who habitually uses that phrase is thinking of Douglas Adams). Also, random things you hear, or better yet slightly mishear, can be an intriguing source of things to use. I wouldn't have been able to include references to zombie sofas without it.
  4. It's often fun to take a literary archetype (or stereotype, but not usually a single character unless it's one so iconic that it has become an archetype. Try ramming two together at speed instead) and twist it into something else. An easy way is to apply relentless logic until it starts to look suitably stupid. If the basic barbarian hero your grandad told you about is very good at not dying, then of course he's going to be quite old by now, isn't he?
  5. Failing that, just take what might be the defining characteristic of the type and do something strange to it. So you get wizards who can't do (or are allergic to) magic, vampires who don't like the taste of blood (or, for those of us who watched enough cartoons, prefer tomato ketchup), princesses who are neither beautiful nor particularly nice, and other staples. The only slight difficulty is that many of these have been done a few times by now, so you might have to go further.
  6. One way of doing that is to simply add on comic elements, like weird incongruities, general cluelessness, irritating honesty etc. until you get something interesting. The problem with this approach is that, having cobbled the character together out of parts, it feels... well, cobbled together out of parts, really.
  7. Perhaps a better option is to ensure that you get an appropriate character by starting with a normal character who would fit the story. That gives you a sense of the shape of the hole you have to fill. What you do then is to brainstorm all the different ways that hole could be filled. Generally, the idea is to take the weirdest option that is still viable. This can sometimes provide fun little subplots, and new (but still weird) takes on the central themes of the story.
  8. How thick should your character be? Always an awkward one this. A little bit of stupidity can be really good fun, but too much and they are either unbelievable (though if you look around, you might decide you can go quite far before you hit that point) or unsympathetic. Perhaps the best examples come from Tom Holt, whose early heroes didn't seem to be that bright. In his more recent stuff though they are a bit cleverer, making up for it with a sort of general sense of loser-ness. With main characters, that seems like a better option, though very specialised forms of stupidity (such as a general cluelessness around women or innuendo, an inability to see just how bad genuinely unpleasant people are, or a mindless and automatic reaction under certain circumstances) can still be useful.
  9. One point is that characters very often get funnier as you start to tie them into the plot. They start off doing one thing, but if you're in a position to have them do a couple of others too, then the traits that are funniest start spilling over and affecting those secondary areas, while still seeming perfectly reasonable. In particular, looking for excuses to have characters do seemingly incongruous things for perfectly justifiable reasons is great fun.
  10. Finally, remember to have fun with them. If you don't like them, the reader won't. Make them big, and overblown, and weird. And then, just when the whole edifice of bizarre characterisation looks set to topple with a crash, have them do something sincere or sensible, and remind the audience that they aren't just a joke, but a funny character.

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