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.

slaves of comedy VEEP

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.

If actors need to ‘blueprint’ a character’s inner workings, they can devise a backstory that suits their interpretation, just as they would with a Shakespearean character for whom there are no (original surviving) character notes.

Ironic Attributes

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.

Layering comic characters Basil faWlty
Basil Fawlty [John Cleese]

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 believable layer of complexity to his personality.

Exaggeration and Distillation

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 credibility. 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.

The crucial element

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)