Thursday, 10 May 2012

Recurring Characters

The golden rule for story telling is change.  Usually it's characters who change in some way - they grow up, they learn to trust again, they discover inner strength they didn't know they had.  The exception is recurring characters who come back story after story.

I was inspired by yesterday being the 350th anniversary of Mr Punch, who made his first appearance in an entry in Samuel Pepys' diary.  Mr Punch has changed in format - Judy was originally called Joan, throwing the baby out of the window has been watered down to sitting on the baby and the hanging scene has gone - but Mr Punch remains the same: self seeking, disrespectful of authority, anarchic, and all the funnier because of it.

Punch and Judy wouldn't work if Mr Punch changed his ways and became a new man who behaved himself.  Ditto most recurring characters.  Miss Marple will never stop knitting and listening to village gossip. Hercules Poirot will never shave off his moustache or assimilate into British society.  James Bond will never stop making double entendres.  Harry Potter may grow up, but he essentially remains the same character.

Recurring characters don't change.  Instead, their surroundings and supporting cast must change so our hero or heroine faces new challenges - which they surmount in exactly the same way as usual.  It's the familiarity that is so appealing.  The reader knows what they're going to get and, sure enough, they get it complete with catch phrases and familiar tropes.

Or, as Mr Punch would say, That's the way to do it!

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