Those of you who have followed my blog for some time or taken courses with me through Screenwriting Master Class know how fascinated I am with character archetypes, specifically how there are five — Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster — which recur in movies over and over and over.

Some might see archetypes as a sort of reductionist approach to writing when in my experience, it is precisely the opposite.

By working with these five Primary Character Archetypes, we can identify the core narrative function of every key character, then use that knowledge as a guide as we build them out in a limitless number of ways.

One approach is to use an extensive array of Character Types available to us. So this month, I am running a series in which we will explore 20 Character Types, and consider how writers can use them to create unique, compelling figures in our stories.

Today: Clown.

Some of the earliest and most successful actors in cinema history were clowns including The Keystone Cops, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin:

It’s interesting to note how broad, physical humor, often called slapstick, is a feature of clown character types. One of the greatest of all in movies is Harpo Marx from the Marx Brothers:

Of course, they are often known by their verbal wit such as Danny Kaye’s character in the 1955 movie The Court Jester:

Clowns tend to be Trickster figures and often defy convention or authority. As such, they upset the normal state of affairs, creating confusion, even chaos. But that can be precisely what must happen to reveal some underlying truth that needs to emerge into the light of day. Consider Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) in the 1946 movie It’s a Wonderful Life. He is a Clown in the form of an Angel who upends the ordinary life of George Bailey (James Stewart), compelling into an extraordinary experience — one in which George has never been born.

We may think of Clowns as happy figures, but they can don their comic masks to shroud deeper, darker psychological dynamics. A great example is Steven Gold (Tom Hanks) in the 1988 movie Punchline, a comedian tormented by inner demons.

Then there are Clowns whose stories are enmeshed in tragedy like Guido (Roberto Benigni) who concocts an elaborate fantasy — the Holocaust is a game and the grand prize for winning is a tank — to protect the imagination of his son. Here is a scene depicting Guido’s last moments:

There is a tradition in the horror genre of scary clowns such as It, Clownhouse and Killer Clowns from Outer Space, a mainstream version of which is the Joker (Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight:

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Clowns can mock and betray, but also delight and inspire. Since movies are fundamentally a visual medium, Clowns can cut quite memorable figures due to their sheer physicality and Id-driven impuses.

What brainstorming can you do with a Clown character type?

Is your story in need of some levity and chaos? Consider your cast of characters. Might one of them have a bent toward a humorous psyche, willing to flaunt conventions as well as be the object of ridicule?

While a Protagonist can be a Clown type, some of the best sidekick characters fall into this category, creating a comic spark to change the mood, put things into perspective, or just to give a jolt to a scene.

What other Clown character types can you think of in movies? Why do you think they make for such interesting figures?

Tomorrow: Another character type.

[Originally posted February 10, 2014]

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