Naughty or Nice: Two Ways to Approach Characterization

If you know BBC comedies, you probably know about Fawlty Towers and The Vicar of Dibley. They will be serving as examples, so if you don’t know these series, well, there’s your homework.

Richard Curtis, the creator of The Vicar of Dibley, says something very interesting on one of the DVD extras. He explains that a lot of comedy is based on characters being mean to each other. However, Vicar finds its humor in characters trying very hard to be kind. This idea sticks with me. Vicar is a wonderful example of the Comedy of Kindness, and Fawlty Towers comes to mind as the great example of The Comedy of Meanness.

Both are potentially hilarious, but being nice — even when it goes horribly wrong — tends to be more endearing than, say, spitting sharp insults. I’d gladly share a beer with the Reverend Geraldine Granger. I’d prefer to observe the irreverent Basil Fawlty from a table or two away.

I happened to be in Halifax, Nova Scotia, during the 2009 Pride Parade, whereat I caught this flagrant act of kindness.

Thinking of storytelling in these terms is helpful in developing character motivation. I’m working on the final playlet in my 5-playlet play Depot People. I’m not thinking of it as comedy per se. Sure, there’s a sense of humor throughout and perhaps even a touch of absurdity. The play also has what I hope are poignant moments, though, and maybe an insight or two into human behavior. If it is a comedy, getting the big laughs is not a high priority.

Nonetheless, one of my main themes is people trying to be kind to others. Sometimes, they succeed. Sometimes, they fail. I hope this is what makes the characters sympathetic and, one dreams, memorable. I have this nutty idea that — Internet trolling and the Donald Trump phenomenon aside — people generally try to be kind to one another. They can identify more closely with characters who also do so.

This isn’t to say that there’s no Basil Fawlty impulse in us all, too, that hurt, enraged, spiteful, childish, very naughty scream that most of us manage to keep squeezed inside. Silencing that scream, I suspect, is central to the struggle to be nice. Thinking of one’s characters in these terms might help flesh them out and make them more real.


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