COMIC ARCHETYPES & THE SEED OF CHARACTER

By | July 1, 2020

Major T.J. ‘King’ Kong

To avoid comic archetypes becoming stereotypes or clichés, place them in a fresh identity and setting of your own devising.

Stanley Kubrik’s Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is widely regarded as a breakthrough in cinema satire. The story concerns the US President’s attempts to save the world from nuclear obliteration when an insane US Air Force general orders a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. The film features archetypal characters in incongruous guises.

The runaway B52 bomber commander, Major T.J. ‘King’ Kong, is written and played as an archetypal cowboy. Clad in a cowboy hat and boots, he speaks with a strong Southern accent and yells ‘Yee-ha!’ as he rides a falling hydrogen bomb as if it’s a rodeo bull. Doctor Strangelove himself is depicted as a classic Mad Scientist archetype. The signs of his madness manifest in his ludicrous plans for humanity’s future and his failure to control his Hitler-saluting right arm. The US President seems more suited to a primary school staff room than the heart of American military power. His conversations with the Russian leader have the hallmarks of a petty squabble between an indulgent teacher and a child – ‘[Major Kong] went and did a silly thing. Well, I’ll tell you what he did, he ordered his planes to attack your country. Well, let me finish, Dmitri. Let me finish, Dmitri. Well, listen, how do you think I feel about it?’

At the height of tensions, the President cries out in desperation, ‘Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here – this is the War Room!’ The line’s inherent contradiction renders it laughable. Like the archetypal character that utters it, the line’s role is to capture the essence of the film’s message –  that the concept of peace through nuclear armament is mad.

It is no accident that Dr Strangelove features these ironic character attribute combinations. What could be worse than a cowboy with a nuke, a Fascist scientist and a wimpy US President taking charge of humanity’s future?

Having established its ironic archetypes swiftly, Dr Strangelove places them under extraordinary pressure. The characters then go through their motions in a way that’s as horrifying as it is inevitable.

Archetypes can provide writers with a seed, the essence of a character.

Roman playwright Titus Maximus Plautus developed many stories about a cunning slave, an arrogant old master and his lovably idiotic son. Plautine plots and characters provided the basis for Commedia D’ell Arte and hundreds of English Restoration comedies.

One modern instance of these three Plautine archetypes can be found in the BBC sitcom Blackadder the Third. Blackadder is a classic cunning servant. His status is frozen, he has high self-regard, lies and cheats to achieve meagre aims and aspires without hope. He’s confounded by his arrogant buffoon master, Prince George, and annoyed by his idiot colleague, Baldrick.

The Plautine Idiot archetype is lovable but blinded by his own limited awareness. This character can be counted on to grab the wrong end of the stick, creating misunderstandings that spark and power a comic story. The Idiot is gullible, trusting and incapable of keeping secrets. He takes euphemisms literally and sarcasm on face value. If there’s something that shouldn’t be said, the Idiot will move a story along by (innocently) saying it.

Sound familiar? It should. Randall Winston, the Mayor of NYC (Spin City), Kelso (That 70’s Show) and Sheldon (Big Bang Theory) share the Idiot’s classic characteristics. Yet each has been given his own distinct role in life, physical characteristics, outlook, status, cultural background, prejudices, strengths, weaknesses, wants, fears and emotional needs. They share their archetype’s flaws but have their own, too. Randall Winston is weak-willed, Kelso is driven by lust and Sheldon is a genius in all things except basic life skills. It is the archetype’s key characteristics, however, that provide their writers with tools to regularly place all three characters in hot water. (Don’t worry, fellow feminists – Alice in The Vicar of Dibley, Rose in The Golden Girls and Betty in Hey… Dad! show that the Idiot can also be a woman.)

It’s arguable that film genres work in the same way as archetypal characters. Being John Malkovich, I Love You Too and Crocodile Dundee stem from Romantic Comedy’s generic story pattern (Cute Meet, 2nd Significant Meet etc). Like archetypes, they stem from the same seed yet deliver starkly different results.

Theme is the primary guiding force for any film or TV show. This is the case whether the project is entirely new, applies archetypal characters or complies with a genre. Dr Strangelove’s characters all reinforce its theme by displaying the inadequacies and eccentricities of those with the power to destroy mankind. Fail Safe is a dramatic film from the same era that tells a similar tale. Its US President is wise and noble. If he’d appeared in Dr Strangelove, he’d have been ignored by the other characters or done away with because his voice of reason would not have confirmed the film’s theme.

The theme of Notting Hill relates to sacrifice of one’s private wants for the emotional need of true love. Being John Malkovich’s theme regards acceptance of one’s own identity as the only path to true love. As the moral purpose of each film is its own, their stories play out in markedly different ways.

Tim Ferguson is the author of The Cheeky Monkey – Writing Narrative Comedy (Currency Press)

Layering Comic Characters

By | July 1, 2020

Julia Louis Drefus [Veep]

LAYERING COMIC CHARACTERS

Having chosen a role in life and a key ironic attribute for a comic character, you can begin adding layers. The most effective approach is to draw from the character’s ironic attribute.

Don’t bother with devising a detailed backstory. Backstories are largely useless writing tools, unless those stories are intrinsic to the current plot, in which case just write the plot. The audience is never told what made Basil Fawlty (Fawlty Towers) the way he is, but we can guess – a lonely life at private school, a gruff and bullying father, childhood dreams dashed by reality… Perhaps wondering about what awful experiences could have forged Basil Fawlty’s personality is more entertaining than hearing about them.

Basil is a classic Farce protagonist. These characters are the main provocateurs of conflict in their worlds. Basil’s abrasive nature places him at odds with everyone he meets.

His key ironic characteristic is that he’s the rudest Bed & Breakfast manager in his world. His rudeness is his most active and enduring quality.

Having chosen this ironic attribute, all sorts of bells and whistles appear that relate to and underpin his rudeness. Basil is short-tempered, prejudiced, self-loathing, thin-skinned, judgmental, spiteful, frustrated with his lot… His list of flaws is almost endless and each flaw is revealed as the situation demands. Fawning and slavish obeisance may seem at odds with Basil’s nature, but when a man he mistakenly believes is a British Lord comes to stay, Basil becomes as sycophantic as a hungry puppy. This quality is a mild surprise to the audience, but it’s the natural underside of his snobbery, and it adds a layer of complexity to his personality.

No one could ever accuse Basil of being subtle. He presents an exaggeration and distillation of a rude Englishman. He’s not just rude – he’s rude to the point of being barely believable. He lacks the nuances we might expect from a more realistic dramatic character.

Comedy’s primary imperative – involuntary audience laughter – trumps believability. The simplicity and clarity of his core nature allows the audience to know exactly what he’s thinking at all times. We’re not scratching our heads or marvelling at the mysterious depths of this man. We are laughing despite ourselves at his all-too-clear flaws in action. That we all share at least one of his flaws makes the comedy sharper.

And it is here that a crucial element of comic character development appears. Though we wouldn’t like to meet Basil, we care whether he wins or loses. Like Selina (VEEP), Blackadder or Ted Bullpit (Kingswood Country), Basil Fawlty generates our empathy and sympathy through his universally recognisable flaws and aspirations.

Though comic characters can be fools, rascals or saboteurs, we care about them because they represent a mirror. The easier it is to recognise ourselves in that mirror, the more we will laugh at our own foibles.

Tim Ferguson is the author of The Cheeky Monkey – Writing Narrative Comedy (Currency Press)