Creative Writing and Role Playing

Why “Funny” is Not a Character Trait

Character creation is my favorite part of any type of writing. Novel, short story, or role playing, characters are always the entire reason I read or write. Plot is ok, setting makes a huge difference, and you have to have a good theme, but we fall in love with characters.

But something has often bothered me about certain characters, and it has done so since I was a kid. Even being little and watching cartoons, I would see the comic relief of a kid’s show and just groan. I was embarrassed to be watching cartoons that had crappy comic relief characters. I would change the channel when someone else came in to avoid them thinking for a moment that I even remotely thought they were funny. I just felt like there was something so painful about it.

And humor is incredibly important. Don’t get me wrong, I have a  lot of ideas about humor in writing and I belief the comic relief character is probably among the most important. A good comic relief should be able to make you cry. And maybe that’s why I was always just so bothered by bad ones. And I finally think I know why that is. If you’re a role player, pay extra close attention. If you write for video games, smash your face into the screen. I’ serious. Video game writers commit this sin a LOT. You need to fix your comic characters. This might make me sound like a negative killjoy, and I understand that “funny” is subjective, but I have to think there is some method to the madness of humor.

Funny is not a character trait.

It never will be. It can’t be. It shouldn’t be. And this is because “funny” is a word that describes how the audience feel about it. To put it simply, you don’t get to tell your reader how to feel.

You will never be able to say “laugh at this” to a person. If it isn’t funny, they won’t laugh. Different people will laugh at different things. You won’t please everyone. I’m using funny as my main example, but this is also very often done with “cute“. You cannot put “cute” as a character trait, because you have no say over whether or not your audience finds them cute.

Take a moment to think about cartoons, anime, video games. In “Dead By Daylight”, each character is introduced with a few key word to define them. It’s good to do this when you have a large cast, and choosing one or two identifiable traits is actually a trick you can use to make background characters more memorable (not in a more developed way, but literally, easier to identify later). But one of the characters gets the “funny” tag, and it kills me. Because the things he does to be funny, like throwing in too many one liners, or doing a weird little dance for no reason, these aren’t what make a person funny. Think about it in your life, the people you know.

We all know someone who thinks they are funny. Or a little girl who wants to get away with murder because she thinks she is cute enough. These people aren’t funny or cute, they’re annoying, just like bad characters.

The way to have a good, well developed, and not annoying character, is for the author to be funny. Humor is organic, and above all, authentic. So list their actual traits, the things that a character can be. Quirky, clutsy, amorous, quick-witted, intelligent, apathetic, melodramatic. All of these will lead you to “funny” situations, because the character is acting authentically to who they are. They aren’t trying to be funny, which would just annoy their friends, they’re being themselves and others are considering it funny.

It’s like this. A character who always wants to say random crap because it’s quirky, pretends not to know basic common sense, carries around a stuffed animal and feeds it with his lucky spork, has a pocket full of glitter, and uses cutesy speak like “boop” and “glomp” is trying way too hard to be cute, and probably bothering people who just wish he’d grow up and be interesting without the need to pander for attention like a child. Example: Barbie Fairytopia’s “Bibble”, plenty of unlikable animal companions.

A guy who is sweet, but doesn’t fully understand social graces, gets tongue-tied quickly, is still awkward in his own lanky body, greets everyone with a good attitude, doesn’t realize he always sets himself up to be made a fool, but doesn’t care and just tries to be a good buddy, makes a cute and endearing character. Examples: Monster High’s “Jackson”.

A guy who constantly has to have the last word, is loud when people want quiet, doesn’t understand personal space, is way too into himself to consider how others feel, never shuts the hell up, and thinks he’s everyone’s best friend when they really want him to leave them alone, is the guy who would label himself “The funny guy”. Example: Mass Effect Andromeda’s “Liam”, most characters on Cartoon Network in the past 5 years.

A gruff muscle man who really just wants to eat meat and be left alone, but who is decent enough to mix with other people when he’s needed, doesn’t change his bad manners in the presence of nobility, and thinks it’s ok to blow his nose in his napkin at dinner is a great comic relief, adding to the rest of his character. Examples: Game of Thrones’ “The Hound”, Vikings’ Rolo.

See what I’m getting at? All characters need to be fully developed and have many viable and authentic traits, and then the funny situations they get themselves into will actually be relatable to the reader.

Other words you shouldn’t use as character traits

Seroiusly, just choose different traits, and let their actions speak for these words. They’re fine to strive for, but they need to happen naturally in accordance with your character.

Badass: You will look like a wannabe punk who just wants to glory-hound and take the last hit, then pretend not to care about the party or partake in anything except combat or competitions.

Tough: If you insist your character doesn’t care about others long enough, they will soon decide to stop caring about your character.

Sexy: Over sexy-fication makes a good character look like a bimbo. Let sex appeal happen, never insist on it.

Hardcore: Edgy McEdgelord doesn’t look good on anyone. Stop twirling your knives and scoffing, you look like a high schooler who ransacked a Hot Topic and prays to books written by H.P. Lovecraft.

Leader: Trying to insist on being a leader just makes your character seem desperate for power and bossy to the characters people actually like. If they’re a natural leader, show it. But don’t assume that the title makes the man. Or woman.

Manipulative: It can be accurate to say that they want to manipulate people, but forcing it to work when it shouldn’t will confuse your readers and anger other players. Manipulation is subtle. Anyone who boasts about it is probably not great at it.

Scary: Writing a good villain is hard. Writing something that actually scares the reader is harder. You’re invoking an emotional reaction. A real, tangible reaction. That needs to happen organically, it can’t be forced.

The obvious caveat is that any of these things can actually make a great flaw for a character. A character thinking he’s sexier than he is, for example, may actually make him an effective comic relief. Think Miroku from Inuyasha. But the point is, it doesn’t make them sexy, it’s funny because they aren’t. A character who thinks they’re more manipulative and intelligent than they are can have a great arc of development when they realize they should stick to being honest and upfront with their friends, maybe even after a tremendous failure that forces them to rethink their choices.

So when you want to list character attributes, try to think about each word and decide whether it’s accurate for a person to be that way, or if it relies too heavily on audience reaction. Anything that relies too heavily on the audience’s reaction needs to be genuine enough that if the reader doesn’t find it funny, they at least see it’s in line with the character and don’t simply become annoyed or cringe at the forced wacky antics.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in the comment section below!

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