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Comic relief characters have become a byword for flat characters in many creative communities. They’re quickly spotted and scorned by editors and other critics.
For the most part, comic relief characters deserve that treatment. They’re often two-dimensional, predictable, unimportant to the plot, and useless overall. Famous examples you may recognize include Tow Mater, C-3PO, and that poor, friend-zoned childhood buddy of your average rom-com heroine. Unlike a normal character who happens to be funny, the comic relief character exists for the sole purpose of providing laughter. He’s probably labeled as an ally, but only in name, because he’s not terribly competent at anything in particular (aside from a great slapstick routine). He doesn’t advance the plot or stir emotions between the lines.
The problem with comic relief characters is that they are only hilarious. They crack readers up, and that’s it. When readers should be sad, they laugh. When they should be tense, they laugh. When your story is being profound, they laugh. Laughter isn’t bad, but it’s a single-track emotion. When you’re laughing genuinely, you’re not sad or scared or amazed. You’re just amused. Stories engage and move readers through a multitude of emotions. When readers are laughing, they’re only feeling one emotion. When they only experience one emotion from a certain character, they’ll likely view that character as shallow. Entertaining maybe, but shallow.
As Christian authors, is that the effect we want our characters to have? I think not. Not only are flat comic relief characters pointless, they’re also distracting. They can suck the meaning from a story.
Should we cut comic relief characters? Some of you might balk at that idea. You like a book that makes you laugh. I do too. So, instead of removing the character, let’s develop him into someone worthy of a spot in your novel’s cast.
Identifying Comic Relief Characters
Before you can improve your comic relief characters, you need to find them.
The best place to start searching is anywhere your novel makes you laugh (or at least tries). Focus on the character who attempts the joke. What is his purpose in the plot? At what point does he change the story’s flow? If you can’t come up with a better answer than, “Well, he’s been the main character’s friend forever,” you’ve unearthed a comic relief character. Alarms should be ringing in the back of your head. Uh-oh.
Your story has been put on alert. Don’t panic. There are solutions.
Building Your Character through the Unexpected
You don’t need to eliminate comedy from your story. In fact, you don’t have to minimize it at all. You need to add to it. Take your character’s lighthearted personality and expand it into a complete human being.
The best way to build that human is to lean on the unexpected. All humans have quirks. If you’re willing to admit it, even your BFF surprises you sometimes. Read through all of your comic relief character’s scenes and list all his reactions to the story’s events. Is he ever sad? Anxious? Angry? Convicted? These are all emotions that real humans experience. If your character never feels these things, you need to insert them. When should he feel too sad to crack a joke or too confused to come up with a punch line? Keep in mind that his emotions should not line up perfectly with the main character’s. He’s his own person with his own backstory, and he should emote like it.
Imbuing Mr. Laughs with diverse, unexpected emotions will help him pop. When your characters start to pop, so will your novel.
But wait, there’s more.
Popping Your Story through Contrast
One of a comic relief character’s key traits is blurting funny comments at inappropriate times. Over winter break, I read the Peter and the Starcatchers series, which was fabulous, but it contained several comic relief characters. One, however, was very well written: Tinker Bell.
If you’ve read the original Peter Pan, you’re probably aware that Disney’s rebrand of Tinker Bell as a lovable fairy princess is far from J. M. Barrie’s version of the character. In reality, she’s rude, narcissistic, manipulative, and mouthy. She’s no different in Starcatchers, where she’s always fluttering around to drop a snarky line whenever the plot sags for a page or two.
However, one scene from the series will probably be stuck in my mind forever. The Lost Boys are leaving Peter Pan. For good. To grow up. He’s already fighting his immortal loneliness, and now he feels betrayed. He’s angry. The tears won’t stop brimming in his eyes even though he hates crying. The scene was surprisingly touching for the fun romp the series was. And then, at the worst possible moment, when Peter’s heart is splitting in two, Tinker Bell heartlessly quips about Molly and Peter’s friends.
I was angry. I was hurt. I was trying really, really hard not to cry. It was a silly kid book, but I couldn’t help reacting to the drastic contrast of emotions the characters were dealing with. I was drawn in more deeply and powerfully because of, not in spite of, the comic relief. Except it wasn’t very comic.
We can all learn from Tinker Bell. Humor doesn’t have to be expelled from your story—or even placed where readers will think it’s funny. If you’re aiming for laughs, make the scene funny, but understand that humor can be more significant than lighthearted banter. Contrast your characters’ different emotions to enliven your story with vivid emotion. Ask yourself where the story is supposed to amuse readers and why a joke is used. If you understand how your story approaches humor, you’ll be creating fun, engaging stories everyone (including editors) will love to read.