Silly vs Fun vs Ignorant Characters in Otherwise Serious SF/F

ColGray

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In my current project I've introduced an ignorant side character to both lighten the mood a bit and offer an easy road for natural worldbuilding. They're an outsider who can stand in for the audience and ask, What's that, to avoid in-world characters discussing things they should definitely know (e.g., A "cell-phone" you say? What is that??"). Making them powerful offers a fun juxtaposition (IMO).

I also realized I use this tactic a lot because it's fun to write and I enjoy reading it but it's a fine line between silly, fun and annoying and, if done poorly, or done too much, it can undermine a work rather than elevate it.

The example of, overdone = undermines the work, that pops into mind is Jar Jar Binks. He was the audience stand in for the world and underwater and being there to both ask and answer questions, but between speech patterns, stupidity, and just egregious silliness, he undermined the movie.

OTOH, Skippy, from the Craig Alanson Expeditionary Force series, is a fun example of a powerful, ignorant and silly character in an otherwise serious work who elevates the work narratively (putting aside the HFY + Everything Will Work Out tone, I'd still say the books are serious, especially at the beginning).

And I just remembered Fizban from the Dragonlance books (Weis and Hickman) and his gold dragon Pyrite--but they're very, very minor IIRC.

I'm trying to think of other characters who fall into this category and where they're done well or poorly. Any other chars that pop to mind, one way or the other?
 
The companion in Doctor Who was put there for that very reason. They (briefly) changed this to Liz Shaw, who was intelligent almost an equal for the Doctor. But that didn't last long before they switched her for Jo Grant who was able to ask the questions that the audience needed to know ths answers to.

Compamions such as Jo Grant, Leela, Jamie and K9 were just as responsible for makingbyhecdhow a success as the Doctor himself.
 
I have an immediate reaction to this that is negative. The writer pre-planning a shortcut to the difficulties of exposition that is then used and re-used throughout the novel. It doesn't sound like a character I want to visit with, and reading SF exposition in dialogue form makes the info-dump longer and more tiresome.

Yes, it could be done well. Anything can be executed with such style and grace that it is a pleasure to read. But that includes straight up exposition.


A film teacher I had once said, "Everything is on the screen for a reason," or, at least, should be on the screen on purpose. I think that principle should apply to even a lengthy novel - everything in there should forward the core of the story and the atmosphere of the story. I don't know if that principle aligns with a character that serves the function of the chorus in a Greek play.
 
I posed the same question to a couple friends earlier and someone went, Oh, You mean like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? (Yes, Hamlet, but more so the Stoppard play, R&C Are Dead). And another guy asked, Like the MC in, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court?

It was right around then that I planted this question firmly into the, It's all about execution, bucket.

Done poorly, you get Jar Jar Binks. On the other extreme, you get Hank Morgan and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
 
Falstaff was arguably Shakespeare's greatest creation, and appeared in several of his plays.
 
When it comes to tying together the Shakespearaverse, it's a real question of whether Falstaff or Spiderman is the glue.
 
R & G appear only twice in Hamlet, rather than throughout the play.
 
There is also the question whether "regular" readers will be bothered by it.

I'm reading Harry Potter to my child and I look at exposition and backstory delivered by different techniques (sometimes via Pensieve but most often via evesdropping) and I'm on the fence. It sticks out like a sore thumb. On the plus side the Pensieve is a cool dressing up of the frame story/epistolary but we mostly get evesdropping which is not a very good exposition method when done to this extent.

But it doesn't seem to bother readers, so it is successful.

I'm trying harder to make the backstory/world building fit in with the story which means stuff that I know how to explain is not explained, and I think that's ok. For all I know my readers (yes, those mythical creatures from a potential future) will invent their own, much better, backstory.
 
I'm reading Harry Potter to my child and I look at exposition and backstory delivered by different techniques (sometimes via Pensieve but most often via evesdropping) and I'm on the fence. It sticks out like a sore thumb. On the plus side the Pensieve is a cool dressing up of the frame story/epistolary but we mostly get evesdropping which is not a very good exposition method when done to this extent.
That's a great call out, yeah. And, yeah, it sticks out, but you're looking for it and aware of what's happening. It's one magician watching another to see how they string together movements--to see how they trick is performed--versus the broad audience ooooh'ing and aahhhh'ing at the spectacle.

Dobby is another good "silly" character used for backstory, plot movement and to lighten the mood.

Good execution seems to rely on a thin veneer of activity and using the conceit of the world to tell the backstory -- it serves to expand the worldbuilding both in what they show and what they tell, while leaving the audience wanting another bite.
 
Tolkien used several different characters at different times.
Sam, of course , was used several times, but also Merry and Pippin, (Pack yourself up Master Bag, The Palantiri etc.), Beregond and even Gollum
By having multiple narrators, they could comment on what was happening to one of the other groups with impunity.
And anyone could ask Strider or Gandalf for the history of a certain person or object at any time.
 
I think this is more common in dramatic works than in written works, because conventional dramatic storytelling must rely on spoken words for conveying background information to much larger degree. However, in a novel you do not need a naive interlocutor in the same way. It’s one choice, but you could also choose to go inside characters’ heads for their thoughts and feelings.

The naive interlocutor often serves to highlight the absurdity of conventions/situations that the “in group” characters take for granted, which could be one reason for going that route.
 
an ignorant side character to both lighten the mood a bit and offer an easy road for natural worldbuilding. They're an outsider who can stand in for the audience and ask, What's that, to avoid in-world characters discussing things they should definitely know
I'll split this into two items: an ignorant side character and lightening the mood.

I've heard the term Watson character to describe a someone who requires explanation of 'known' things. There are lots of ways to achieve this: student-teacher, subordinate and boss (explanation could go in either direction), coordination or planning with an ally. This is useful in cases where something should be told, not shown; or told then shown.

I am a little bit cautious about having a character to lighten the mood. When I'm reading, I usually like to stay in the mood and have tension maintained until it is resolved. Too many times, I feel interrupted by having a forced, comedic line injected. If used, the lighter character should be used as a bridge between important scenes.
 
I am a little bit cautious about having a character to lighten the mood. When I'm reading, I usually like to stay in the mood and have tension maintained until it is resolved. Too many times, I feel interrupted by having a forced, comedic line injected. If used, the lighter character should be used as a bridge between important scenes.
I'm a sucker for the comedic line delivered at the right moment and the right moment is not always when things have been totally resolved.
 
I'm a sucker for the comedic line delivered at the right moment and the right moment is not always when things have been totally resolved.
There's the movie James Bond version of this and there's good versions. The first breeds eye rolls. The second heightens tension because it showcases discomfort and/or how someone is dealing / not dealing with stress.

Brother Longfoot in the first Abercrombie trilogy came to mind as a great example of what I initially meant -- he's a "serious" character (very experienced navigator retained to guide them to the edge of the world) who tends to annoy everyone around him as he enumerates the very many talents that he possesses, yes indeed, though, sadly, fighting is not one of the very many talents with which he was blessed. That he discusses this, at length, in moments of tension or to have someone else explain something--or to explain something to other people--provides an avenue for backstory, exposition, worldbuilding and silliness that juxtaposes and highlights his differences against the three sociopaths within the party and his similarities and differences to the other narcissist.
 
My characters span books so they act like they act; Rodak will always be Rodak regardless of the mood of the book. I ran a stunt group for a while and the only way to do that and not be just a lecture is to have scripts and you have to break up the stunts with funny. As I write mostly action, I like to at times provide humor in the result of a specific action. But Three Stooges doesn't read well.

During one show Tristan misjudged a backwards spring and whacked her head on an oak post giving me a view of the absolutely most serious crossing of the eyes I've ever beheld accompanied by a clear wooden note. That would metamorphose into:

. My palm stung and I had to keep readjusting my grip.
. I was focusing so much on my opponent that I wasn't paying attention to
anything not in my immediate vicinity.
. He'd stopped a moment to decide on his next actions when I saw a flash of
reflected sunlight on black lacquer behind him.
. Then his eyes crossed. Really and truly the most forceful crossing of eyes that I
have ever seen. This was accompanied by a very loud note, an actual musical note,
although with a kind of hollow coconut sound. Then he simply turned off and
dropped.
. Oddly, his eyes never closed.
. Quy looked around and flipped her parasol handle out into the street. "That's
it?"

I'll do gore but those scenes don't float comedy.

Comedy is cerulean.
 
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In my current project I've introduced an ignorant side character to both lighten the mood a bit and offer an easy road for natural worldbuilding. They're an outsider who can stand in for the audience and ask, What's that, to avoid in-world characters discussing things they should definitely know (e.g., A "cell-phone" you say? What is that??"). Making them powerful offers a fun juxtaposition (IMO).

I also realized I use this tactic a lot because it's fun to write and I enjoy reading it but it's a fine line between silly, fun and annoying and, if done poorly, or done too much, it can undermine a work rather than elevate it.

The example of, overdone = undermines the work, that pops into mind is Jar Jar Binks. He was the audience stand in for the world and underwater and being there to both ask and answer questions, but between speech patterns, stupidity, and just egregious silliness, he undermined the movie.

OTOH, Skippy, from the Craig Alanson Expeditionary Force series, is a fun example of a powerful, ignorant and silly character in an otherwise serious work who elevates the work narratively (putting aside the HFY + Everything Will Work Out tone, I'd still say the books are serious, especially at the beginning).

And I just remembered Fizban from the Dragonlance books (Weis and Hickman) and his gold dragon Pyrite--but they're very, very minor IIRC.

I'm trying to think of other characters who fall into this category and where they're done well or poorly. Any other chars that pop to mind, one way or the other?
Not in literature that pop into my mind but this is basically the cast of Neon Genesis Evangelion, or almost any big anime.

Actually, I lied, i think Diane Duane does this in her YA series, Young Wizards, particularly in the first book and in Wizard's Holiday (There's a species of sentient alien pine trees in the latter of the two but not like ents. Just, like, a tree...in the first novel, the protagonists have to deal with a White Hole they name Fred who burps up things...like books, or airplanes, all in a plot revolving around slowing down the death of the Universe, essentially, the through line through all the books. )
 
I have to admit I can't think of many characters who are both the bumbling comic relief *and* the character who asks the questions that reveals how the world works. There's plenty of characters who do silly things, and plenty of characters who ask lots of questions, but maybe not so many that are both. Maybe Sokka in Avatar the Last Airbender, but I think they spread both the jokes and the exposition there too much for it to be a true case.

I think there's a potential problem in combining the two in that said character will look like an absolute idiot a lot of the time and that if your story is mostly full of people to admire, they might stick out like a sore thumb and feel wrong. Doesn't have to end that way but if you're feeling like something might be wrong enough with what you're doing to ask questions about it, maybe ask if that's why.
 
I think there's a potential problem in combining the two in that said character will look like an absolute idiot a lot of the time and that if your story is mostly full of people to admire, they might stick out like a sore thumb and feel wrong. Doesn't have to end that way but if you're feeling like something might be wrong enough with what you're doing to ask questions about it, maybe ask if that's why.
It's a fair point, but I think I've explained this poorly and that may be the root of the conversation. My focus is more on the ignorant side, used as a way to lighten the mood, rather than wacky antics that are at odds with an overall tone.

Valka, in Sun Eater, is a good example: she's a "serious" character who is an outsider and ignorant of how some things work and her asking, What is that, or saying, That's irrational, gives Marlowe the opportunity to explain things. She's rarely "silly" in a, wooooah look at the wacky character and her antics!, kind of way--but she absolutely has a couple LOL moments simply by acting as the audience stand in to call out something that seems off.

The Genie, from Disney's Aladdin, is a great example: silliness is ramped up (it's a Disney film for kids + Robin Williams) but he's ignorant of a lot of, "why's", and super powerful. The world, and history of the world, are revealed through his questions and statements.

I'll also reference Skippy from the Expeditionary Force books as he may be the best example I can point to and which many people may have read recently. Skippy, more than others, combines tropes like, Person of Mass Destruction, Benevolent Side Kick, Ancient Alien AI and A Delightful Asshole into a single package. Concepts like, personal privacy and empathy need to be explained to him. He reduces each alien race into a single an insulting animal -- stupid kitties, filthy monkeys, Birdbrains, Bugs, etc. And he also starts a cult around himself (with his prophet/profit: Skippy Hasyourmoney), a country (skipistan), a digital currency (skipcoin) and writes operas (as himself) and hip hop (stage name: Lil'Shithead), and each is deployed with humor, wit and as a way to update the audience on the passage of time/worldbuilding/ changes.
 
I think there's a potential problem in combining the two in that said character will look like an absolute idiot a lot of the time and that if your story is mostly full of people to admire, they might stick out like a sore thumb and feel wrong.
Col. Jack O'Neill (Stargate SG:1) pulls it off. There's some fananalysis dedicated to this.
 
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