Comic relief characters are either utterly lovable or horribly obnoxious. Little wiggle room exists between the two extremes, which poses a problem. You want these characters to be deep, lovable, and worth readers’ time. Giving your comic relief characters situational awareness, rationales, and motivations can flesh them out and prevent them from being clichéd.

Mr. Sarcasm and Miss Head-in-the-Clouds

For the sake of illustration, I’ll focus on two well-known comic relief characters. First, we have Mr. Sarcasm. This guy has a sense of humor as dry as a leaf in the fall, and he doles it out whenever he wants, to whomever he wants. We also have Miss Head-in-the-Clouds, whose random, lighthearted, and often irrelevant thoughts can entertain readers or exasperate them. Though her positive spirit can sustain a world of discouragement, she tends to be oblivious during tense situations.

A major concern with writing these characters is the misplacement of humor. Perhaps your character is in the middle of a firefight, and you find the perfect spot to incorporate a sarcastic remark. Should you? Humor can ease tension and provide contrast, but it’s tricky to execute. How do you determine when jocularity will work with your story?

Example time.

Mr. Sarcasm is staring down the barrel of a pistol. Instead of reacting like a normal human (with fear, pleading, planning an escape, or preparing for death), our lovely comic quips that his grandmother can handle a gun better than his enemy. Miss Head-in-the-Clouds is in the same situation, and she too seems to have trouble behaving like a normal person. Instead of unleashing a snarky comeback, she wonders about the gunman’s haircut.

As it stands, this humor will fail. Mr. Sarcasm’s insult is cliché. We’ve all met that cocky character who cracks jokes in the face of death like he’s immortal. Miss Head-in-the-Cloud’s response isn’t much better. It makes her look like an idiot. Neither character leaves the situation appearing compelling.

To save these characters from being shallow while retaining their quirky remarks, you need to establish the source of the characters’ wryness.

Understand the Origin of Your Comic Character’s Humor

As KP’s editor-in-chief Josiah DeGraaf would say, clichéd characters can be avoided by making them human.

Your character’s actions must have a reason behind them, even if he is unaware of it. In real life, people often act and react on behalf of their subconscious. Your character doesn’t always need to know the logic behind his steps if readers do.

Ask yourself where your comic character’s humor came from. Perhaps Mr. Sarcasm only sasses everyone because it’s a shield. As a kid he yearned to become an artist, but his father prized strength and functionality, not creativity. His father rejected him because of his dreams. Mr. Sarcasm figured he’d be liked if he acted aloof, fearless, and void of desire. He became the man his father wanted.

Unfortunately, producing a unique backstory for a character like Mr. Sarcasm is challenging. Tough, droll characters are typically the result of extreme hardships—being orphaned at an early age, enduring a tragic war, witnessing a death, etc. Though these could create a Mr. Sarcasm, they’ve been overused and have lost some effectiveness. Look for ways you can twist these clichés. Sometimes smaller hardships, like oppression or verbal abuse, that build over time can lead to hopelessness and harden a character as well. Not every emotionless character must be traumatized by a terrible event.

Miss Head-in-the-Clouds was raised in poverty and struggled daily to survive. Letting her mind wander was a coping mechanism she formed. It not only helped her cope, but her supposed naivety caused her enemies to underestimate her. In time it became a habit.

Our characters don’t seem flat now, do they? The key to fleshing out dimensionless characters is motivation. Once readers suspect that Mr. Sarcasm and Miss Head-in-the-Clouds act the way they do for a reason, they won’t discount them and will be curious about their pasts.

It’s always difficult to show a character’s past without being tactless and on the nose. This topic is expansive enough for another article, but for now, remember: subtext, subtext, subtext.

Hint: don’t reveal your character’s past until the right moment. Perhaps a word takes Mr. Sarcasm back to his father. Perhaps Miss Head-in-the-Clouds sinks into moments of complete silence before or after an intense event. Let your characters’ off-kilter actions indicate that more exists inside them than what’s on the surface.

Give Your Character Situational Awareness

This concept applies to any character. Before your characters drop a witty remark while in peril, make sure readers realize that the characters are acting in spite of the pressure, not because they don’t understand the stakes. We’ve demonstrated that Miss Head-in-the-Clouds and Mr. Sarcasm are both deeper than they appear. Now we must prove that they are human through their reactions, despite their irregularities.

When facing the gunman, we understand that Mr. Sarcasm trained himself into apathy as a kid, so he doesn’t care if he receives a bullet. Miss Head-in-the-Clouds tends to fade into escapism when she’s terrified and must rein in her brain to concentrate on fleeing. Show this reaction to readers, so when your characters toss out sarcasm or chase a random thought, it adds rather than detracts from their personalities.

This tactic not only smartens your characters, it enables them to crack a joke without throwing off the scene’s mood. If your characters recognize the danger they are in, and it affects their inward thought processes, readers will forgive the false bravado or the errant thought.

There you have it, friends. Situational awareness is the essential principle for creating non-cliché d comic characters. Once readers know your characters have normal reactions and a reason for their actions, they will empathize. Humor can then be inserted without risking readers’ disgust, earning their love instead.