Erika Wassall, the Jersey Farm Scribe here, with the first of a series of posts on Supporting Characters:
Supporting Characters – The Comic Relief
I wanted to touch on the importance, and some of the struggles with writing supporting characters. And instead of shoving it all into one post, I decided to do a few posts, each focusing on a specific type of character.
Sometimes, the idea for a story is so focused around “the idea” that the layering of additional characters and arcs of interest can get lost. So let’s talk about a few characters that can help to bring a sense of completion to any story, whether it’s a picture book or a young adult novel.
Let’s start with a definition:
Actually, scratch that. The official definition was much too full of words like “interposition of a comic episode” and “relief from emotional tension” to be helpful.
(Personally, I’ve never understood how the definition of a word is allowed to have variations of the same word in it. How is that helpful?)
But it did bring up an interesting point. Does comic relief remove us from emotional tension? Or does it sometimes feed into it? Is it purely to make us laugh?
The comic relief does more than check the box marked “funny”. They can bring a few important literary aspects to the table.
Genuine Relief and Reprieve
Intense stories bring us to our emotional knees, leaving us achingly vulnerable. This is the power of literature. These are the moments, the build-ups and the characters we remember. But at the same time, a balance must be struck or else the page turning becomes… well, exhausting.
The comic relief makes us smile, perhaps relieving some of the pent up anticipation or giving the reader a moment to simply smile, feeding a rush of fresh oxygen into the scene.
Lowering the Guard
On the opposite side of the coin, the comic relief can also intensify moments by creating a false sense of security. Ever read a plot arc that is TOO linear and predictable? Building up to the climax calls for a dramatic jump, a sense of sudden-ness that can be lost if it’s been steadily building for pages. Sometimes a few moments of lighthearted relief is just enough to give the next “big moment” an air of surprise.
The Curiously Intelligent Fool
The simplest characters can have a heavy significance under the surface. This was a powerful tool that Shakespeare used, such as The Porter in Macbeth or the aptly named “The Fool” in King Lear.
These characters may have an air of silliness, or may seem like half-wits, but their simplicity also gives them a sense of clarity. This type of fool can play on sarcasm, point out obvious flaws or the opposite side of the coin that the main character may not have seen.
Comic relief can be a powerful tool for foreshadowing or for reminding readers of concepts or character flaws the main character they try to push aside or deny. The “relief” in this sense, is that the character shows a fresh look at an idea, they revolve around different perspectives and keep the story, character or scene from being too one-sided.
Often, it is this type of character who speaks the truth in a way that no one else can.
By developing comic relief characters into more than just one-liners or funny habits we throw in when things get too intense, we allow our stories to come to life in multiple dimensions.
Laughter is not always silly. It’s a powerful literary tool that can wield great force and direction of any story.
So while Merriam-Webster may call it merely “humor” or “to interrupt intense tragedy”, it has much deeper connotations than any short set of words can give it. After all, we want to present a sense of reality, and laughter of all kinds, is something we all naturally seek out.
And our manuscripts are worth it!
Erika Wassall is a writer, a farmer and a liver of life. She is a member of SCBWI and a proud Mad Scientist, bringing science experiments right into children’s classrooms, and hearts. She has a small farm in New Jersey with sheep, chickens, pigs and vegetables. Check out her new website at www.TheJerseyFarmScribe.com where as a first generation farmer, she often takes the long way, learning the tricks of the trade on The Farm. On her website is also The Shop page with tips and a free Q/A from her husband’s mechanic shop, and The Writer page where she shares stories, experiences and characters from the heart. Follow her on Twitter at @NJFarmScribe. She’d love to hear from you!
Thank you Erika for another great post.