Four Comic Relief Characters Who Aren’t So Funny

More for RPG Blog Carnival.

Some comic relief characters spring up to fight back from the grim darkness of the grim dark world where everything is so grim and dark that readers and gamers alike would flee if there weren’t some sort of humor to keep them stable. Others are there because the creator of the world needed a laugh. Still others seem to have been created by some sort of dramatic necessity. But all of them serve about the same purpose: they’re there to lighten the mood and bring in laughter.

Unfortunately for many writers and quite a few game masters, they’re also rather prone to backfiring. What causes the comic relief character to go wrong?

The most common issue they have is being nothing but the comic relief. You don’t design characters whose entire schtick is their class or the thematics behind their powers, right? So why should a character be designed purely for the sake of being “The person we always laugh at”? Let me show you how this can go wrong.

  • Sucks to be him: This one-note comic relief character gets all of his laughs through schadenfreude. If his creator’s prone to physical humor, he’s the one who slips on bananas and isn’t warned in time about that first step, or who gets trounced in every battle or trapped under the defeated enemies when he wins. He might be the one who always looks for love in the wrong places, or whose memory will always fail at precisely the wrong time. It’s just who he is. The problem here is that the joke gets old after a while. It stops being funny to watch this character get targeted, particularly if he’s even remotely sympathetic.
  • The repeating flaw: While our last example’s laughs came from what the world did to him through no fault of his own, this one technically brings all her problems on herself. But since it’s because of one glaring weakness, that’s okay because she can’t help it, right? This is where we find the uncontrolled kleptomaniac, the hopelessly clumsy student, the bumbling mage-apprentice and the perpetually distracted—ooh, puppies! One is that the joke gets old, particularly if this character is in a game and the flaw is messing up the PCs’ ability to function. Another is when, in an otherwise serious setup, the flaw has none of the consequences you’d expect it to because real consequences wouldn’t be funny. Can we say ‘breaks the fourth wall’? Still another is that if it does have consequences, the flaw disappears when it would be inconvenient for it to come into play. The last is that they never seem to attempt to do anything about these flaws of theirs, unless doing so would allow the world to start making punching bags of them. I don’t know about you, but I find this more irritating than amusing.
  • The joke repository: This one’s purpose in life is to be comic relief, and he knows it; he actively attempts to play for laughs, delivering a joke in every situation. He has the advantage of avoiding the verisimilitude issue most of the time, as we all know he’s trying to be funny. In fact, if he’s got a good in-character reason for this trait, he can get away with a lot. The problem comes if this character doesn’t know when to shut up. Imagine you’re in the middle of an intense scene—a shocking revelation, perhaps, or a desperate battle. Something where you’ve got a definite mood you want to convey. And just as you’ve hit that mood, your friendly neighborhood class clown insists on piping up with a one-liner, and the mood just dies. No, that doesn’t work.
  • The one-note joke: This character has been gifted with an aspect which her creator can use as an endless joke mine. (For female characters, this as often as not has something to do with sex.) And any time this aspect can be used in this manner, it will be, to the point where if she has any meaningful character development you can’t remember it because The Joke Mine Aspect is the first and last thing you associate with her. I shouldn’t need to explain where the problem with this is.

Now, in material that’s meant to be light humor, or with a group that finds these templates amusing, this can still work. But in a lot of cases, they’re just going to detract from the overall impact. Think twice before including a one-note comic relief!

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