Four Qualities of Great Comic Relief Characters
"Comic relief" is a term that tends to make a lot of readers and moviegoers groan. Mainly because it is something that can interrupt the tension of a story and become nothing more than an annoyance. There are many examples of bad comic relief characters who exist solely for slapstick humor, spouting catchphrases, and irritating the other characters.
The purpose of comic relief is just that...relief. Sometimes a moment becomes too dark and tense, so comedy is something that can shift the tone. Stories need that at times, as long as it's done seamlessly and strategically. There's a time for characters to be serious, and a time for them to joke around. Humor is an important ingredient to add to any story, even if it's not a comedy. Here are four ways to spot a well-written comic relief character.
1) Their humor isn't forced
A lot of people are funniest when they aren't trying to be. You don't have to be a professional comedian to get laughs. Everyone has a different sense of humor, whether it's goofy and boisterous, wry and dry, or even dark (yes, everyone has that one person in their life with a twisted sense of humor). It's all about when, where, and how the jokes are utilized.
The same goes for characters in a story. Readers and audiences can tell when the writers are trying too hard to make a character "the funny one" whose only job is cracking jokes and getting into trouble. Good comedy in a story comes from establishing a character's personality and brand of humor, then using it situationally.
A great example of this is Mark Watney from Andy Weir's The Martian. Watney is an astronaut who gets stranded on Mars and must survive there until help arrives. His life is threatened several times throughout the book, but Watney still manages to laugh through his misery. It's established early and clearly that he HATES disco music, so naturally, disco music is all he has access to while stuck on Mars. This type of situational humor tying into a character trait is what creates great comedic moments throughout the story.
2) They aren't the only source of humor
Too many stories designate one character as the "funny guy." As long as the character is written well, there's nothing wrong with having someone who stands out as the main source of comic relief. But they shouldn't be the only source, otherwise, they stand out too much.
It's also not realistic that only one character would crack jokes while everyone else is brooding and serious throughout the entire story. Think about gatherings you have with friends and family. It would get old if only one person told funny stories and cracked jokes around a bonfire or a dinner table. It's more fun when everyone has their own unique funny comments and stories to share.
The same thing goes for a character ensemble in a book, movie, or show. Having funny scenes unique to a specific character or characters makes them more relatable and makes their personalities shine that much more. A common misconception is that only a side character can be the funny one, but the protagonist and even the antagonist can also have moments that make people laugh.
3) They are useful
Just because a character is considered "comic relief" doesn't mean they can't also be a superior intellect or a brave warrior that helps save the day.
Sokka from Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the best comedic characters in any show. He could have easily been someone constantly getting everyone into trouble with his antics, but on the contrary, he ended up being a key part of the group with his leadership and strength. Comedy was just one of his many positive traits, which made him stand out more as a character.
If a character's sole purpose for being in a story is for comic relief, then readers and audiences get tired of them and wonder if they even belong in the story. But funny characters like Sokka justify their existence by having many valuable traits that help the protagonists throughout their journey.
4) They experience growth
This probably sounds repetitive from my other posts, as I've stressed the importance of character growth many times. But it's worth repeating that EVERY character should experience some kind of growth or change in a story. The more readers and audiences can connect with a character's journey, the more they will love and appreciate that character's humor.
Effie Trinket from the Hunger Games series was a scene-stealer and brought a lighthearted presence to an otherwise grim story. She goes through a developmental arc over three books: gleeful ignorance in the first one, hesitancy over the Capitol's actions in the second one, and separating herself from the Capitol in the third one. Her sense of humor changes and evolves along with her, but it's never lost.
Who are some of your favorite funny characters and why? Let me know in the comments!