Originally posted on July 26, 2009.
You often see these little nuisances hanging around the protagonists. They’re characterized by being engaging underdogs—usually small and cute, but sometimes just lesser in power or Narrative Vitality than the protagonists themselves and somewhat more personable. (Given what angstballs today’s heroes are, though, that’s not hard.) They’re likely to have odd speech patterns, or compulsive habits, or something else that sets them apart from the standard protagonist and marks them as important secondary characters. And whatever they are, odds are anyone in the group with which they travel will step in to protect them under any circumstances. They’re the plucky comic relief, and dealing with them is like dealing with dynamite.
What makes them dangerous? First off, they are the keepers of the tone. While the Dark and Gritty Quotient is low, and usually without any attempts at changing it if it starts low it will stay low, they have narrative immunity that makes the protagonists look downright vulnerable. It makes them like cockroaches; put them in any dangerous situation, they’ll get out with a few bruises and a snappy punchline. Drop a building on the group? The plucky comic relief will crawl free from the rubble dragging a piece of the furniture that saved his skin behind him and joking about duck and cover. Trap them at the center of a fire? You don’t want to know how he’ll get out of that. The more improbable survival is, and the more absurd a situation it would take to make it possible, the more likely it is that the plucky comic relief will make it out.
But worse is if you make a point of killing him. You think you got threats of vengeance when you murdered the early-confrontation love interest? That one’s replaceable; it’s part of the contract. But the plucky comic relief is holding the hearts of the group and the tone of the story close to him at all times; ice him, and you’ll be lucky if all you get is a swift and ironic end. With him gone, the limits vanish. The Dark and Gritty Quotient, blasted by the death of innocence (yes, he’s a symbol, deal with it), shoots through the roof. The protagonists’ morality sprints out the door. And hero rules like “Thou shalt not kill”, and more relevantly “Thou shalt not take glee in making the Hand of Darkness whose opposition to thee hath caused her to wrong thee greatly suffer” are the first things to go. Sure, if you know you’re doomed, want to to add as much darkness to the world as possible, and can’t feel pain, it might be worth it. But if not, don’t even think about it. And if you must snuff the plucky comic relief, do so quickly; the worse you make the little snot’s passing, the more trouble will come back to you later.
But if you can’t target him specifically, and you can’t just make collateral damage of him, what can you do? The logical thing, of course, is to lock him up. Yes, and expose yourself to the chatter and annoyances. I realize chucking him in an oubliette so as to avoid that is tempting, but if you do, he’ll be out either the moment you turn away or the moment you forget about him, whichever would be more inconvenient, and he’ll leave a mess of one-liners scrawled on the walls in something you can’t just clean off. Supervision, at a distance to avoid misplaced sympathy, would probably be safest.
Now, if you’re clever and can keep your wits about you, you might have another option: recruitment. Remember that whole ‘keeper of the tone, heart of the group, symbol of innocence’ thing? What happens if you manage to get all that symbolism onto your side? What does it do to the Narrative Causality? Nobody’s ever found out; for some reason, the last few who tried got recruited by the little snot instead. But if you think you can do it, and you’ve got some way to protect yourself from his wiles, wouldn’t the eventual result be worth having to laugh at his jokes?
Love him or hate him, the Plucky Comic Relief is a force to be reckoned with; if you’re going to go into big-league villainy, you’d best be ready to deal with him. Good luck!
(The management would like to note that we haven’t had a question in a while. Don’t be afraid to ask; not only do you get an answer to your dark dilemmas, but you get a link back to your site and further exposure of the innocent to your own diabolical materials. What’s not to like?)