Writing Relatable vs Goofy Characters
Hans Ness, Nov 12, 2023
Here’s an interesting observation: The protagonist is usually the most realistic of all the major characters, or the silliest, but not in the middle — i.e., the most relatable or the goofiest. But there is one caveat: This applies only when there are comedic characters, not serious dramas where everyone is realistic.
Most commonly, the protagonist is someone “normal” like us, with similar wants and needs, so it’s easy to empathize. Meanwhile every other major character is less realistic, stock characters and exaggerated caricatures — the wise-cracking sidekick, the mean bully, the embarrassing parent, etc. Or if everyone is silly, the protagonist is simply the least silly, relatively closer to normal than the others.
Onward — Ian is shy, awkward, and lonely, like many teens. His brother is a caricature of a “loser”.
Moana — Moana is a typical headstrong teen. Maui starts as a comically vain antagonist, but evolves into a relatable protagonist.
Toy Story — Woody has a flawed but realistic personality. Buzz starts as a silly caricature, but evolves to become a more relatable protagonist.
Monsters Inc. — Sulley is the realistic dynamic character who drives the plot, while Mike is the silly, over-the-top sidekick.
The Mitchells vs the Machines — Katie is a realistic teen eager to express herself, quirky but believable. Her father is the archetype of an embarrassing parent, though we see more depth and seriousness in him later.
Less commonly, the protagonist may be the most exaggerated character, perhaps matched only by their antagonist or sidekick. But they are always funny, redeemable, and eventually show vulnerability. As they grow, they become more relatable, but still not as realistic as the other characters.
Despicable Me — Gru is a caricature of a jerk, matched in absurdity by his sidekick minions and his nemesis, Vector. The three girls are the most “normal” characters, while everyone else is somewhere in between.
Shrek — Shrek and his sidekick Donkey are exaggerated characters, as well as the antagonist Lord Farquaad, while everyone else is relatively more “normal”.
Megamind — Megamind is a caricature of a villain, but goofy. Yet he shows vulnerability and is redeemable so we empathize with him.
Lilo & Stitch — Lilo is a weird kid, but in a likable way. Stitch is a vile abomination. As they mature, they both normalize.
Also look at broad comedies like The Jerk, Ace Ventura, and You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.
Have you ever wondered why some movie characters have an American accent for no reason? Well, there is a reason: to make them more relatable ... to American audiences. When someone has a different accent, we subconsciously perceive them as an outsider, not “one of us”. So even when it’s illogical to the story, the protagonist may have a general American accent, a.k.a. “no accent”.
Ratatouille — Protagonists Remy and Linguini live in France, but they have general American accents. All the other humans have French or British accents. (The rats also have American accents, perhaps to make them less cultured than the French.)
The Lion King — Protagonist Simba lives in Africa but has a general American accent, while most other characters have an accent/dialect or silly voice (Trans-Atlantic, AAE, British, etc.).
Mulan — Protagonist Mulan has no accent while her parents have Asian accents. (But she does have an accen in the remake.)
Star Wars — Darth Vader famously has a Trans-Atlantic accent (between American and British). But in the prequels, when he is the protagonist Anakin Skywalker instead of the villain, he suddenly has no accent at all (general American).
Not all movies use this technique, and it’s getting less common. When it is used, it’s applied to Relatable protagonists. But Goofy protagonists may have a funny accent or silly voice, like Shrek
or Gru in Despicable Me
Note the Relatable/Goofy dichotomy is my original observation. I have not seen it written anywhere, but it seems to hold up to any story I find with funny characters, at least on screen. Can you think of counter-examples where the protagonist is neither the least nor most silly major character?
When writing a comedy, decide which direction to take it. Don’t write your protagonist as a caricature, or do and lean into it fully. Use the other characters as foils to show how normal or goofy your protagonist is.