Playful characters

Recently I’ve been thinking about conventional wisdom in creating stories. What I mean by conventional wisdom, is the stuff I’ve seen in blog posts, giving direction to animators in creating stories.  Some of it comes from Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to writers. Rather than go into the entire list, I’ll paraphrase the basic ideas that I want to comment on.

  1. Make the character want something.
  2. Be a sadist to the character.  Throw all kinds of problems at them to see what they are made of.
  3. Have them overcome the obstacles.

All of that is valid advice for starting stories.  However, I’m concerned that some people will start to think of these as “rules”.   People like Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Mckee, who wrote the book “Story”, are giving advice to writers, not animators.  Animators create characters, and not all characters follow the rules.   I’m thinking of characters I will call “Playful.”

For instance, consider Bugs Bunny.    Bugs doesn’t want anything.  Some people will argue that Bugs Bunny wants to be left alone, but I consider that to be nothing.  Elmer Fudd wants something.  He wants to kill the rabbit for food.   Elmer is also the one who is faced with the many obstacles to his goal.  The obstacles created by Bugs.   Bugs becomes the sadist.   Following the above advice, Elmer should be the protagonist.  But Bugs Bunny is the character people come to see.

Bugs easily masters the situation with Elmer, or Yosemite Sam, or whoever.  Charlie Chaplin’s tramp is the same sort of character.   While he is usually poor and needy, and he faces challenges from bad guys, he so easily controls the situation, there is never much doubt he will succeed.

Playful characters are full of life, and energy, and wit.  They are bold.  They are confident.  They do not shy away from challenges.  They engage in the situation and master it with style.  From the clever servants in old theatrical comedy to the Marx Brothers to Ace Ventura, such characters are performers who run the show, not puppets of the godlike writer.  These are the characters this blog is concerned with.

What inspired the word “playful” was this quote by Johannes Galli, from his book Clown: Joy of Failure.

The clown should never be mistaken for being obstinate. Contrariness provokes an encounter, but the clown is seeking an encounter, because he wants to play.

The literary protagonist, who yearns for one thing, and ultimately gets it, is satisfied, and done.  The playful character is never satisfied, he is always ready to play again.  And audiences will come back for more.

1 thought on “Playful characters

  1. Good post. It’s got me wondering if the playful character is best suited for either the short form or the supporting role.

    Chaplin really could do anything in his short films, but in the features, the Tramp grew much more vulnerable: poor, heart-broken, jailed. I don’t think it was Chaplin’s “sentimentality” that drove this change, but rather the needs of the plot.

    Bugs Bunny was flawless in his 7 1/2 minute shorts, but I can’t imagine him carrying a full-length movie. (Granted, I didn’t see “Space Jam.”)

    And the Marx Brothers, well…they defy all the rules, don’t they? The only general lesson I’ve learned from them is that their characters work best when they destroy the audience’s ability to believe in the plot. A Night at the Opera was the beginning of the end; taking the plot seriously, assigning motivations (Chico helping the romantic lead?) and restricting their playfulness (Harpo not chasing women?) was the kiss of death.

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