01 October, 2020

Letting Characters Be Funny

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There’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed when a person owns two cats. Usually, you get one cat who wants nothing but love. It wants you to pet it, it purrs, it meows in happiness when you come home. Then there’s the other cat. The one who makes all the food disappear, despite your never actually seeing it eat. The one who is responsible for the deep scar in your arm. The one who’s “sweet, but you just have to get to know them”. These two cats are distinctly different in temperament, yet they live together, fight together, and play together. Mixing these discordant cats together is also a rich mine for comedy, as countless YouTube videos can attest. It’s from these discordant characters Tropicats derives its silly nature.

The cast of Tropicats has 30 established characters at the moment. Every character has their own goals and their own needs, distinct from each other. The personalities at play can be drastically different. Two female cats of the same age might have a lot in common, but what is their relationship to an mentally unstable, male shaman? Or a stoic dog? Or a brash Highlander? As a writer, I can rely on the cats to create their own humor just by joining together two who have different goals or personal needs, and letting their particular desires play out.

One of my favorite “discordant personalities” scenes in comedy comes from an episode of Seinfeld called “The Jacket.” Most of the plot revolves around two snarky 30-something New Yorkers being forced to spend time with a cantankerous old war veteran. Every attempt the amiable 30-somethings make to start a pleasant conversation is thwarted by this grizzly grump, who dismisses anything “frivolous” and turns amusing anecdotes into stories about death. This scene isn’t directed toward a particular conclusion, it’s simply exploring what happens when very different characters are stuck together. You can see this sort of interplay in Tropicats in this upcoming scene where an older Highland cat is forced to spend time with Elsie, our star gossip queen and fashionista:

In this clip, you can see a related truth about writing dialogue: that characters will always strive to understand each other, or to be understood. Humans seek commonality, either through discovery, persuasion, or force. But when that commonality is difficult to achieve, that difficulty is a source of drama, tragedy, and of course, comedy. Complicating matters is the fact that while we strive to find commonality with each other, we desperately cling to the versions of ourselves we are most comfortable with, which is its own source of comedy. Let’s take a look at an example.

This is Blacktail.

Blacktail looks like a pirate, but what Blacktail actually is is a complete mess. Under the goofy pirate outfit, “Blacktail” is “Furbert,” the highborn son of a Duchess, who ran away from home to play pirates. He is terrified of his mother, he makes thoughtless choices, and he is absolutely committed to the pirate character as an escape from reality he’s always known. Only his mother can draw out the foppish cat — Furbert — he was raised as.

I have been tempted to turn Blacktail into a source of cheap laughs that other Tropicats can just point to when they need to lighten the mood, but one can write only so many “arrrr” jokes before they start to get stale. Blacktail isn’t funny because he says “shiver me timpurrs”; he’s funny because his chosen method of self-actualization is inherently ridiculous. His personal goal isn’t to be a pirate; he wants freedom to be himself, which means freedom from his mother. He wants freedom to make his own choices, no matter how bad they are. Blacktail’s personal desire to be a free cat colors every conversation he has. I can predict what he will say because I know that he will always have this fundamental need at the forefront of his mind. His piratical presentation is a way he can ensure that he is bolder than he would normally be. It just so happens that his journey of self-actualization has culminated in a tricorn hat and a ridiculous voice, and every other character has to meet him where he is.

Because Blacktail is dealing with other individuals with their own needs, as opposed to blank slates to advance his silly dialogue, comedy can be derived both from Blacktail’s personality, AND from everyone who desperately tries to find common ground in conversations with him. And finding commonality isn’t too easy when you’re having a conversation with a committed pirate.

When beginning a new chapter of Tropicats, I like to draw a character matrix that lets me predict how two characters will react to each other given whatever challenges the group faces at a particular point in the story. This way, I can see, for instance, what sort of interactions Blacktail’s character would have with other characters — especially when conflict arises. Whether the Tropicats are talking about what to eat for dinner or how to de-escalate a war, I can predict how every conversation will play out simply by letting characters drive conversation with their own desires, needs, and personalities. Obviously, it’s better if I don’t have the Tropicats just talk about what to eat for dinner, because conflict can create far more interesting dialogue.

Placing challenges in front of very different characters to see what they’d do is not just a technique for exploring interesting dialogue; it’s also the mechanism by which characters grow and change.. Before the story of Tropicats began, the Tropicats lived a charmed life on an isolated island. They’re now being forced to adapt in ways they wouldn’t have to if they weren’t the main characters of a video game, and like most of us, they aren’t comfortable with it. They cling to their sense of self, just the way we would, which is why it’s important that characters are strong enough on their own to contrast with each other.

For the entertainment of the player, I am merciless to these poor Tropicats, throwing weird, frightening, awkward, stressful, and absurd situations at them, because I know their reactions these situations together are bound to be funny when they have starkly different personalities. After all, putting two cats together in real life is never boring, right?

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