One of the most entertaining things I have done in more than a decade of passing courses on drama, was my research on Ancient Comedy of Greece and Rome, which ended in writing one thesis, one paper and one dissertation which were all about one main subject: entertaining the audience. This form of comedy continued until renaissance and is still performed and it’s still entertaining; tell you what, my best years of studying was reading Plautus’s plays, which I remember laughing so hard it brought tears to my eyes. A play that was written more than 2000 years ago making you laugh, even though it’s a translation, why?
If you haven’t noticed, the Classic Comedy is highly character-oriented. The plot is usually a simple cliché with a happy ending, and unlike the Classic Tragedy, all the characters are static; they’re typical and predictable, either black or white, and we can easily decide who to love or hate even before the play starts. They’re not there to confuse or surprise us. There is a rich old man with a smart and funny servant, the man has a beautiful daughter who is in a secret love with a handsome young man however she is promised to a selfish and middle-aged captain or doctor, whom she hates. There are also others in the play like the young man’s servant, or the beautiful girl’s maid. Sometimes the story has a subplot like a hidden treasure or a twins-story besides the two lovers’ struggle to have their happily ever after. Usually, the most hated characters are the girl’s mean father and suitor, and the best of all is the servant whose jokes and tricks never get old!
Being a drama student, you succeed to read lots of plays, and naturally you start with the classics. The first thing that took my attention when reading comedy after tragedy, tragedy after comedy, was the bold difference between the characters, and it’s what they teach you in the first year, the first semester, almost the first session: tragedy characters are dynamic, while comedy characters are static. That’s like a rule or something. Could you write a dynamic character in a comedy? Perhaps you could, but the demanding audience of Ancient Greece and Rome, you would probably be booed from the first scene.
For those who might need more explanation, a dynamic character is a deep, unpredictable, complicated, multi-dimensional personality; in the Classic Tragedy, this character has a flaw or weakness – called Hamartia – that leads him to his doom (or her); as tragedy is supposed to finish with a disastrous ending, the character’s misery is usually where the story ends. The journey, the suffer, the punishment of our tragic hero leads to Catharsis, which in my idea is the sigh you let go of at the end of the play. The character’s story teaches you a lesson, and the huge change in the character at the end changes something in you. That, my friends, is the whole purpose of the Classic Tragedy: the effect of the character’s destiny on you.
Now a static character – as explained – is a flat, simple, predictable personality who does not have any dark secrets or Hamartia. They do have weaknesses, of course, but not like Achilles’s Heel weakness; they have trait tabs like greed or pride, jealousy or stupidity. And they’re not meant to change. They are punished, though, because of their flaws, but nothing big. The old and rich man loses his money or is forced to give it to his daughter and her handsome lover, which is a far cry from being struck by Zeus’s thunderbolt! It still teaches us a lesson, something like “greed is bad!” or “don’t be cocky!” that is a very mild version of the tragic Catharsis we talked about.
Now why did I make you sit in my drama class and listen to my lecture? The two types of characters, emerged from the Ancient Greece. Dynamic and Static Characters. Which one should we write?
Can we write just one of them in our story?
Sure, why not? It’s your story after all. You can write whatever you want! But before you escape my class – especially that I’m boring you with history lessons – and get busy typing away your star characters, let me bore you a little more about D and S characters; just a little, I promise.
Remember my description of D characters? Unpredictable, surprising, blabla? Not a good comparison, but I’d like you to picture a D character as a cancer cell, whereas a S character is a simple flu virus. The first one challenges you, scares you, and you can never tell what their next move is, while a flu virus is easy to deal with. It still gives you a headache, takes your time, ties you to bed and antibiotics, which doesn’t mean it’s an easy-peasy, but they’re everywhere and there’s too many of them, all alike, so you can even make use of catching a flu, for instance you can catch up with your long list of unread email or you can finish watching a zillion-season TV series you’ve never had time to watch.
A cancer cell, aka a D character, is UNIQUE. They may look familiar to you, but they keep you on the edge of your seat. They’re alarming, mysterious, one of a kind.
The only difference, in my idea, between a D character and a cancer call is that we like the first, the more the merrier, and because we create them ourselves, we can always make them do what we want. You can’t do that to cancer.
Now, once you start to scribble your masterpiece of a story, I want you to imagine your characters as viruses or disease, and your readers as medical students; when you create your characters, make sure you’re choosing enough of this, enough of that; you don’t want a ward full of bad news, because no one can survive so much drama. Too much complication could kill your story and scare your readers away. They need a break. So, send them to deal with flu once in a while. Entertain them, let them sit back for a few chapters and have fun with your Static patients, I mean characters. But if you want to teach them a lesson, bring that challenging patient and drill your students. Give your character a flaw, and not just a trait. Let them disobey the Olympus, kill their father and marry their mother, let them siege a city for ten years because of a fair dame; what’s stopping you? Be brave, like ancient poets and their ancient characters. Create your Electra, today!
And don’t forget, whatever you write, entertain your readers!
We’ll talk about it more!