Creating Comic Characters
Comic characters work best when they are built from a simple base. Simplicity is the chief imperative, whether you’re inventing a character from the ground up, or applying new attributes to an ancient archetype.
True, comic characters may present complex combinations of warring attributes, and comic delivery can range from the subtle to the painfully blunt. But to make an audience laugh, comedy and its characters must present its complexities simply. Audiences don’t laugh and scratch their heads at the same time. No matter the layers of a given comic character they must be simple and recognisable at heart. There are no reliable and consistent audience laughs at the halfway mark between complexity and simplicity just because that’s where real life sits. Adding too many real-life complexities to characters can blunt the comedy.
It is a mistake to see this demand as a limitation: it’s an opportunity. And it’s ignorant to view it as an inadequacy of the comedy writing craft: it’s a unique aspect of the art.
Anyone in any field of human endeavour knows that genius is first found in simplicity. The invention of the paper clip, the ballpoint pen and even the wheel were all arguably acts of genius that came after long contemplation, trial and error. Their simplicity results from the discarding of all the elements extraneous to their purpose, and the distillation of the remaining elements to an elegant and durable tool.
COMIC CHARACTERS AND THEIR WORLDS
There are fundamental demands, elements that must be created and ‘kept’ that are particular to the genius of creating comic characters and their worlds. One is that they need an imbalance of perspective.
This imbalance may be between a normal character in a comic world, such as the everyday Gulliver (Gulliver’s Travels) in the extraordinary land of Lilliput. Gulliver is what might be called a ‘Straight Man’ surrounded by peculiar warring cultures. The Straight Man is common in comedies, providing a sane moral centre to the ludicrous action.
The comedy’s imbalance may be between a comic character in a normal world – David Brent (The Office) is an extremely bad boss in an ordinary paper company.
Imbalance may be found in a comic character/uncommon world setting such as Gilligan’s Island, where the archetypal idiot Gilligan contends for survival in the extraordinary setting of a deserted island.
Finally, ongoing comic conflict between the characters, their setting and the audience can be found in the satirical world of South Park, where even the weekly deaths of young Kenny are accepted by the town’s characters.