Building Character

Character Building

I was at some airport or hotel room or transit lounge when the phrase “Alone Again, Naturally” popped in to my head.

From there to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, specifically the Mikado was but a little skip. I wondered how many people know or remember where the term “the GrandPoo-Bah” came from.

And as is normal with me, my mind went racing away, tracing reference to reference, from Winnie the Pooh and Tigger to animals in stories.

Character Traits

The heroic Riki Tiki Tavi, the faithful Lassie and the brave Old Yeller and, from there, the comic duo of Sam and Ralph, colleagues who punch the clock together and spend 8 hours each day with Sam besting Ralph in his pursuit of sheep before heading back together when the whistle goes for the end of the shift.

Of course, cartoons have always used animals and made them responsible for making us laugh. Tom’s really just a peaceful chap. It is almost always Jerry who instigates the chase. The lisping Sylvester, like Daffy and Wile.E captures our imagination because he and Daffy and Wile.E are the world’s perpetual losers. But it is to them that we turn our sympathetic eye. It is their efforts that are the main focus of our attention. They have their individual methods though all of them are doomed to failure right from the start.

Wile.E is an engineer par excellence, with a well-developed knowledge of complicated trigonometric equations and presumably his credit worthiness is not an issue for the folks at Acme. His downfall is poor quality assurance, he fails always when the tiniest details in his elaborate plans go awry. He is a formidable planner but desperately needs to improve testing methodology. He never speaks, preferring to use placards instead.

Sylvester, on the other hand, is a garage innovator. What he lacks is Wile.E’s engineering and planning strengths. He has limited medium term and long term vision and and no testing methodology at all. Of course, he is also hampered by playing against not just a clever opponent but an opponent who has the umpire (Granny) in his pocket. Sylvester is doomed because the odds are stacked against him. He’s left spit-splattering and while his lisp maybe very street, it’s the baby-talking Tweety who wins, every time.

Daffy lays no claim to any planning, foresight, or any talent other than speaking fast on his feet. He is the ultimate con man; opportunist and double-crosser supreme. He is let down by his mouth and, of course, he is pitted against that ultimate winner, Bugs.

Porky may have a stammer to blame for always being the side attraction, the “comic relief” to Bugs or Daffy. Star billing will always escape him, though he gets the final word.

But Bugs is the supreme hero. No Daffy, no wabbit-hunting Fudd or even a whistling, roaring, hungry Taz can triumph against Bugs. Bugs just has to win. And somehow we don’t grudge him his ultimate win. Bugs is likable because he steps aside and lets Daffy or Elmer have it, in more ways than one.

Plots and the use of Characters

What is common to all these characters, though, is that we have fore-knowledge of their fate before the story ends. Yet that does not take away from our enjoyment of the story. When we read Tess’s story, we can guess almost from the start we are faced with tragedy, that Hardy has in store for her nothing but misfortune, misfortune that is necessary for Hardy to make his point.

And while predictability of story-line and character is sometimes listed as a negative trait, characters must remain true to themselves and their environment. It takes great skill to compel the reader to read a story when the fate of the characters is almost set from the start. Film makers have used that ploy too. Hitchcock famously converted the “whodunit” into the “when’shegonnadoit”. There’s also the

  • “how’shegonnagetawaywithit”
  • ‘ishegonnagetawaywithit”
  • “where’shegonnahidethebody”
  • “howmanyishegoingtokill”
  • “whatfisteoffatewillbringhimdown”

So if you want to write a good story, watch a Warner Brother’s Looney Tunes cartoon.

You can goof off while claiming you are doing research.

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  1. ladyofthecakes

    There’s also the “whenaretheygonnafindout?”. After all, any secret is going to be discovered, sooner or later… 😉
    I love T&J 🙂

    1. TheLastWord

      Oh yes! Missed that one. Tom & Jerry had some of the best music ever. When my older one was about 4 or 5 years old, he was playing quietly with his Lego bricks when I put on some Mozart. He immediately recognized that as a Tom and Jerry tune…
      I should probably get the series and do a analysis of the music from the cartoons. Maybe a great way to introduce people to classical and jazz music. I’ve just bagged the idea, copyright me! Don’t anybody else start on it without my permission!

        1. TheLastWord

          When I think of some of the PhDs I have met and their theses, I think this is a contender…

  2. skinnyuz2b

    Thanks for pointing me in the right direction! I used to watch the Alfred Hitchcock Hour in the early 1960s. Scared the crap out of me.

    1. TheLastWord

      No charge for the advice! Hmmm, we didn’t have TV until the late 70s…. and then we had Bollywood movies on Saturdays and low-budget farm news and national news. 3 hours a day from 6pm – 9pm. In glorious B&W.