One of the most effective techniques in fiction writing is to build up tension, and then to break it with comedic elements, regulating the pace for the reader, even as you ratchet up to the next scene.
This works particularly well in darker books, TV and movies where things can get a little grim. I've recently been watching Netflix's dark sci-fi series, Altered Carbon, which offsets its violence with a smart-talking historic AI called Poe who runs The Raven hotel. The moments of comedy break the tension, even though you know another violent episode is coming.
In today's article, Jonathan Vars, outlines how you can use elements of comic relief in your writing.
“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.”
–William Shakespeare, Hamlet
As our friend Shakespeare tells us, comic relief characters have been around for hundreds of years. There comes a time in every story when we need a comedian, a quick wit, “a fellow of infinite jest.”
As important as these characters are, they tend to be written in a grievously one-dimensional fashion. It can be easy to typecast a comic relief character as simply a tool that grabs some quick laughs. Those who choose this route miss out on a richly vibrant and complex character.
Here are a few of the ways one can use a comic relief character effectively:
Comic Relief as an Ease of Tension
The name says it all: this character is a relief, a soother, a diminisher of anxiety. It is a cardinal sin when writing to emotionally exhaust your audience. As important as suspense and tight story tension are, you need to give your audience a breather every now and then.
A comic relief character can provide a moment of humor to help lighten a particularly heavy scene.
Some points to keep in mind:
- Your character doesn’t have to be a clown to be a comic. A quick wit is always better than a pie in the face
- Don’t saturate your character with one liners. Keep them multidimensional. No one cracks jokes constantly
- Humorous observations can pivot the mood of a situation. If a scene is growing overly dark, a humorous quip from your comic relief can shed a little light and provide balance
A great example of comic relief as an ease of tension comes in the form of Dory from Pixar’s Finding Nemo. Many of the central themes of Finding Nemo, such as loss, trust, and letting go, can be very weighty from an emotional perspective.
The inclusion of Dory as a comic relief character provides the perfect amount of lightheartedness to what might otherwise be a very sobering story.
Note that Dory not only provides laughs, but thoughtful insight at times. This is the mark of a fully developed comic relief character.
Comic Relief as Information Dump
In fast moving stories, readers can wind up feeling lost and confused in the fictional world that is being presented. If no clarity is provided, there is a danger that readers will disengage from your story.
Having a character who is just as bewildered as the audience can be a fun and engaging way to slip helpful information to the reader without resorting to “telling”.
Some tips to keep in mind:
- Try to brainstorm some potential questions your reader would have, then put them in the mouth of your comic relief character
- Remember to keep it light; take advantage of the natural comedy that arrives from misunderstandings
- Don’t keep your comic relief perpetually “in the dark”, allow them to be the ones to offer helpful information from time to time
A classic example of a comic relief character as an information dump comes in the form of Riley Poole from National Treasure. Riley’s science-driven and somewhat geeky personality leave him frequently “out of the loop” in a story that is largely driven by history.
Riley’s comical questions and confusions allow helpful information to be passed to the viewer, while simultaneously entertaining. Note also that Riley provides information himself at certain key moments. This helps flesh out his character in a realistic and engaging way.
Comic Relief as a Red Herring
Finally, comic relief characters provide an excellent opportunity to pull a twist on the audience. As readers, we tend to have the subconscious tendency to “label” characters.
Over time, we have come to recognize common character archetypes in fiction: the mentor, the villain, the love interest, etc. Once we assign characters their “place”, we don’t often suspect that they will break character by displaying traits that are in contrast to their archetype.
This “mental categorizing” tendency provides an excellent opportunity to contrive creative plot twists through your comic relief character. After all, we don’t often suspect the character who has been cracking jokes since page one to turn out to be the “golf club killer”.
Humor lowers awareness; it provides a “safe zone”, creating a unique opportunity to pull an unexpected plot twist.
Some pointers to be aware of:
- Don’t villainize your comic relief character solely for the sake of a plot twist. Make sure it adds to the story
- Foreshadow in some way, even if it’s subtle, that there may be another side to your comic relief character
- Provide believable motivation for why your comic relief character would choose to “lead a double life”
As a point of reference, consider the villainous Jim Moriarty from BBC’s Sherlock. The scene in which Jim is introduced is a purely lighthearted and humorous one. The character seems to exist solely to provide a humorous interaction between the quirky detective and the irritated Molly Hooper.
Even after Moriarty’s true nature is revealed, pieces of his comic nature can still be seen from time to time, creating a deviously unsettling experience for the viewer.
Always remember that your comic relief character is, among other things, a person
With this in mind, make every effort to create your character as complex and multidimensional as a real human being. Let your audience get to know your character as a reliever, an informant, or even a villain.
Remember: if the only purpose of your character is to gain laughs, you shortchange not only your story, but your audience.
Have you used comic relief characters in any of the ways mentioned? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Jonathan Vars is a Christian fiction writer from New England, and founder of the writing website voltampsreactive.com. His latest novel “Like Melvin” is currently available on Amazon and Google Books. In addition to writing, Jonathan enjoys running, painting, and trying not to freeze to death in the winter.