November 10, 2013

"The foolish leader, the two normal people who realize how foolish the leader is but are inhibited from saying so, and the creepy suck-up."

A template for fictional characters proposed by my son John in an iChat discussion about "Flight of the Conchords":
When I first saw the show, I felt like, "well, I'm not that interested in the two main characters, so I probably won't like the show very much."... It's weird for those 2 characters to be so central, yet I see almost no differentiation between them. In any given episode, Brett might be acting differently from Jemaine. But it doesn't seem to be part of any larger character trait — "oh, that's so Brett!"
I said: "sometimes having a bland center works as a plot device. i learned that when I studied 'tom jones' in high school." John said:
[Brett and Jemaine are] kind of like Jim and Pam on The Office. And Michael Scott is like Murray. And Mel is a lot like Dwight. Those 4 fit the same basic template.
So there's the more general idea of the dull central character (or characters) and the more specific idea of 2 bland central characters with 2 livelier characters, one of whom is the foolish leader and the other who's some kind of weird suck-up. Examples?


bandmeeting said...

I think i should make a comment here. Even if it's not really a comment.

Bob Ellison said...

Walt Kelly wrote that folks told to stop including the central character in his comic strip, Pogo. Kelly said he couldn't do that. "He's the glue."

James said...

"sometimes having a bland center works as a plot device." Bob Newhart made a good living doing that.

Johanna Lapp said...

Obama and Biden = two bland central characters.

Jarrett = foolish leader

Chris Matthews = suck-up

Bobby said...

I believe it was John Cleese who said: "We used to think that comedy was watching someone do something silly ... We came to realize that comedy was watching somebody watch somebody do something silly."

The audience can and does relate to Jim/Pam/Ryan (really just Seasons 1-3 for Ryan, as the writers took him in a different direction after that) as they're astonished at and often overwhelmed by the idiocy of their bosses and co-workers around them. And that's why it works. Robert Kaplan calls it the "straight line - wavy line" dynamic.

You see the same dynamic in everything from the old classic Abbott and Costello "Who's on First?" and "I Love Lucy" (with Ricky shaking his head at Lucy and Ethel's antics) to comics like Dilbert to contemporary TV like "Arrested Development" (Jason Bateman contra his whole family) and "The Big Bang Theory" (Penny with all the geeks) to movies like "Old School" (with Luke Wilson playing to Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell).

Having the bland "everyman" on stage provides a stand-in for the audience to see just how ridiculous the activity is that they're watching. It's taught in film school because it works.


Gaius said...

Tintin is another good example. No special distinguishing features, no family, no real indication of how old he is. Supposedly a journalist, he never does any reporting.
The explanation I've seen for this is that, since it's a kids' cartoon, any child can identify with the hero.

Joseph of FP said...

The character Tyler Dupree in the novel "Spin", by Robert Charles Wilson, isn't terribly interesting. (He has his moments though.) He is mostly an observer of the interesting people and things going on around him. (I liked the book btw.)

I suppose with such big things going on, it helps to provide the perspective of a relatively little guy. How can you tell what is big if everything is big?

Henry said...

King Lear.

Cordelia. Kent. Yawn.

Goneril. Regan.