All the Comic Masks

One of the problems in writing a comic novel is using too few characters that are funny. A book is really long when viewed from the perspective of a single gag. You can have a gross slob, for example, with all the attendant crumb dropping, face smearing, and upchucking, but you will find that well will run dry a long way before the end of the book. You are better off establishing a host of comic characters.

While you can work up a group that interacts constantly, you’re better off starting with the question: who is leading my plot lines? Most books have a main plot and a subplot, so your second most important comic choice is the character who leads the subplot. You will have a number of scenes in which the main comedian will not appear—that’s the nature of a subplot. So if that second character is not out-and-out funny in their own way, you will have a number of scenes in which the humor sags. Every time a reader loses their smile, it is harder and harder to get them to smile again.

The same is true even in main plot scenes. You may have a run of scenes where, say, the boss’s secretary really runs the office. What is the secretary’s shtick? Who is receiving the orders, and how do they react when it’s not the boss speaking? If you don’t have subsidiary characters who have their own quirks, you will have the same problem of: funny scene, not funny scene, funny, not funny, until even the funny scenes are not that amusing anymore. 

For every outrageous extrovert you can match them up with what in a comic skit would be called a straight man. That character cannot merely react passively, being outraged every time, or you run into the same problem of repetition. Instead, develop a character arc of their own. For instance, a new boss might take increasing pride in their well-deserved perks of power: nicer apparel, nicer assistants, golf, etc. If the extrovert keeps barging in on such fastidious gardening of power, you gain not only new sources of laughs but also escalating humor because the character keeps having more pride in a new source of power before it is deflated. 

The idea of pairs works on multiple levels. A #3 character will lead a number of scenes, so who are they bouncing off in those scenes? How is the humor different from that generated in the scenes with #3 and #1? Again, you’re looking for variety. You keep showing the reader new tricks. That only works if you have an entire core cast who all are pursuing their own comic goals.

Exercise: You can use personality traits to help with plotting. Draw up a list of plot events you know you want. For each entry, consider how the event would strike each of your main characters. Would that boss-secretary scene be funnier, for instance, if your madcap #1 burst open the door? When you keep your mind open about who will appear, you may find the scene is funnier with a different combination.

“Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.” —Peter Ustinov

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.