The Comic Companion
Has anyone noticed the ever-present 'comic companion’ in successful stories? He or she is virtually the same figure from tale to tale.
Sam in The Lord of the Rings, has remarkable similarities to Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird, or Piglet in Winnie the Pooh, or Herbert in Great Expectations, or Ron in Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone, or R2-D2 and C-Threepio in Star Wars, or the porter in Macbeth. Why are these figures there? Why are they so alike?
One standard answer is 'to provide comic relief'. But the real answer, the universal answer, is to be found in the book How Stories Really Work.
If the protagonist of a story has a life that is all about being robbed of more and more, physically, emotionally and even spiritually, in order to draw in the reader’s attention relentlessly, then a comic character provides interludes, breaking things up a little, relieving the relentless build-up of emptiness.
A side issue, not essential to the overall plot, is addressed through these characters, who bring with them laughter, a sign of something minor being resolved, a symptom of relief.
The reader, drained by the trials of the protagonist who is losing more and more as the story goes on, experiences a moment of relief. That moment of relief serves to make the protagonist’s situation even darker by contrast.
The comic figure also has something essential to do in the end: they have a key role to play in the protagonist’s quest.
Don’t take my word for it - look at these examples.
The Lord of the Rings
In Chapter Two of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo has just learned how the entire fate of Middle Earth has fallen upon his shoulders and that he will have to give up everything that he loves - home, friends, comfort. Who is cutting the grass outside his window as he learns this in a deep conversation with the wizard Gandalf? Sam, who is comically lifted through the window by the wizard and comically regards the whole prospect of the trip as a blessing.
Sam later plays a key role in the quest to destroy the Ring, taking the burden of the Ring at a vital moment in the story and thus saving the Quest.
To Kill a Mockingbird
After an onslaught into her childhood from the adult world, with racism explicitly appearing, Scout is confronted by the word 'rape' and the threatened loss of her friendship with her brother Jem. Who should reappear at that moment in the novel but Dill, the comic figure, who comforts Scout that night.
Dill is the one who prompts the children to seek out Boo Radley earlier in the novel, which has huge consequences later.
After the great ordeal towards the end of the story in which Pip finds out the awful truth about his benefactor and then loses him, who steps forward to fill Pip’s vacuum with some comfort but Herbert, the comic figure in Dickens’ novel.
Herbert then provides Pip with support at a vital moment in the plot.
As for Star Wars, comic companions R2-D2 and C-Threepio are constantly acting as vacuum-fillers in their appearances after or during major battle scenes. They act to rescue the heroes at crucial moments.
The porter in Macbeth appears with his word-play and lewd jokes just after Macbeth’s horrific treasonous murder of Duncan, as a result of which Macbeth believes he has lost his own soul. (It’s also the porter who symbolically lets in Macduff, the character who will bring an end to Macbeth’s reign.)
In all these cases,we have yawning abysses of our protagonists and the momentary relief of a templated comic figure, who is less affected.
How this all works - and indeed why it all works - is covered in much greater depth in How Stories Really Work.