Thursday, July 12, 2007

What makes a character a character? pt 1 Realistic VS Abstract


Who doesn't want their cartoon characters to be true stars? To be a truly iconic character you have to have these properties:

A Specific Design
A Unique Voice (an extinct concept)
A Specific Personality
Specific Mannerisms

By these criteria, Popeye would be just about the greatest and most creative character ever.
Not only is his design, voice and personality completely unique, so is his dialect!

E.C. Segar made up a dialect that I've never heard anyone speak except Popeye. "Infinks is almos' as iggorant as aminals!"

4 Broad Categories Of Characters

There are only a handful of sweeping general types of characters that cartoons draw from.

1) Realistic-personality based on human observation

These are characters that are identifiable, because you know people like them in real life. They are believable. You can put them in preposterous situations and it makes it really fun to see how a realistic character will react in an impossible situation.

The better the writers, actors and directors of these characters, the more specific and engaging they become. They can be simple or deep but have to be specific to really be engaging.

To create rich characters that are based on reality, you have to be very observant of human nature, both in its broad categories, and then in its detailed specific variations.

To act a real character, or draw one, or write dialogue for one, you have to have keen senses. You have to constantly be able to notice details that escape the average artist or writer.

It is the talent of caricature that makes identifiable characters engage the audience and not every creative person has this. Some writers who are good at plot may not be good at character. It's a different ability.

This is less about imagination than it is about acute senses. It's about pinpointing interest in what really exists and leaving out the boring parts, or the parts that everyone has in common.

Sincerity and naturalness from the artists and actors is needed to pull this kind of character off. Audiences respond well to honest depictions of characters culled from the street, that aren't Hollywood insincere lies.

Bugs Bunny - Street Smart Wiseguy

Bugs is a regular guy. A teenage wiseass, class clown type. He's just like someone who was in your class.

When he was created, this was so unique that he caused a huge sensation - just because he was so uncartoony, but in very cartoony situations.

Moe Howard - Bossy Asshole
Moe is a caricature of a type of person we all know. He is my species. A very specific version of a relatable general type of actual human.

George Liquor - Republican

George is also a realistic personality. A republican disciplinarian type. I've known many variations of this type and combined my favorite parts from different examples into one uber-Republican.

Bluto - Bully

Every guy in the world was either a bully or has been bullied by someone like Bluto.

2) Abstract Characters

- A made up "Created" personality, not realistic but entertaining. These types of characters are truly "created" because they don't exist in nature. They aren't based on observation; instead they come more from the imagination.

Elmer Fudd
Elmer has a weird combination of specific characteristics:
He's completely hairless, retarded and wimpy-yet wants to kill helpless things, then cries when he succeeds at it.

He can't say his Rs and Ls and has a very distinct timbre to his voice.

Does anyone know an Elmer Fudd in real life?

Daffy Duck
A complete lunatic that says "woo woo woo" when he gets excited and bounces and flies all over the screen like a maniac.

This is my favorite character!

Interestingly, they changed him from a made up abstraction to a realistic character later- a selfish backstabbing coward.

I like him better when he's just unpredictable and crazy.

Curly Howard
Who can explain Curly's character??
He has a million unique mannerisms and vocal exclamations, but you somehow always know what his emotions are-even though they are expressed in completely abstract ways. Jerry Howard was a creative genius.

He took all the basic human emotions and made up a new acting language to express them to us. Wow.

Stimpy's personality couldn't exist in real life. He is an idiot-who can also create a Happy Helmet. He is empathetic to those who are meanest to him.

He's an abstract idiot and genius at the same time.

Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis made up a sort of retard character that has a million completely unique expressions and mannerisms.

There are lots of "clownish" characters in comedy, but not too many as specific and abstract as Jerry.

PopeyePopeye is a complex collection of weird traits that shouldn't go together.

He's an old skinny man who can beat anyone up.

He has a good heart but picks fights sometimes just to get his orneriness out of his system.

He has the strangest dialect ever in cartoons.

He has a man's reproductive organs where everyone else has a face.

Skinny upper arms and thick lower arms.

He eats raw soggy spinach out of a can.

Amazing that someone made up such an odd assortment of traits. How did Segar do it?

Realistic Characters Can Work Well With Abstract CharactersThe contrast between an identifiable character with a cartoonish abstracted character if well handled can add up to a lot of fun and laughs.

All these characters have something in common, wheteher they are "realistic" or "cartoony".

They are all really specific in all their details. Their looks, voices, mannerisms, expressions, everything.


They have charisma and that's what to me, makes a true character and a star.


3) CROSSOVER CHARACTERS- combining observation with imagination

4) DISNEY CHARACTERS -neither realistic nor created abstractions


illiaster said...

Thank you so much for putting these insightful and inspiring ideas up. I'm trying to practice my artwork, but I'm a slow learner...

I don't think I could've learned any of this if I'd gone to art school!

Here's what I'm trying to learn...thru practice

Anonymous said...

Nice post

Emmett said...

Mr. K,

Thanks for mentioning the combination of realistic and abstract. Many of my favorite characters are combinations, and I find them to be very appealing.

I always have a hard time learning this stuff on my own.

Anonymous said...

I hope you do more posts like this soon.

mike f. said...

Popeye is God.
Even Robin Williams couldn't kill him.

Steve said...

I love insano Daffy too. Watching him bounce his way across the lake while doing his whoop whoop whoop whoo whoo whoos is a gasser (as my Grandpa would say).

Mr. Semaj said...

Man, I've struggled for YEARS to create original characters that don't make me cringe. You probably know what it's like to be disappointed with your own creation.

Danimator said...

I think making characters too realistic an be a problem, especially when everyone is realistic and there is no contrast. I agree totally with you about Daffy Duck. I like him much better in the nutcase role he had originally.

And damn, Popeye is a great character- no other cartoon or person in real life is like him. Your description of him had me cracking up. There are so many ridiculous things about him, but they're not questioned. All his weird quirks are accepted. Maybe if Popeye were being created today he'd be shot down unless it was explained why he is the way he is to make him more realistic.

Nico said...

AAAAUGH this post is just too cool.

I can't wait for you to get more indepth when you continue this topic!!!

C. A. M. Thompson said...

I was surprised to see where you categorized Popeye. You put him in the abstract category but to me he seems completely real, more than a lot of the characters in the realistic category. There's something about the what Segar did that just makes you never question that a toothless one-eyed old man is an indestructible fighter. He probably is abstract but you can kind of relate to him too. There are lots of contradictory things about Popeye but somehow they all make sense. Real people are at least a little contradictory anyway.

Clinton said...

Hi John,

thanks for all the lectures, im learning a great deal. do u think two realistic characters be successful together in a movie or short? I am thinking about Disney and Pixar characters mostly. For example, I can't see Buzz lightyear and not say to myself, "Oh that's Tim Allen! And the other guy is Tom Hanks!".

harpo said...

Another damn interesting read!
I found a popeye drawing I made when I was about 4
check it here

Ryan Ganley said...

Wow, Excellent Post!
I just happened to stumble upon your blog on my adventures through cyberspace and i'm so glad I did, I am an animator in training so this information is all very helpful to me!

Roberto González said...

I agree with c.a.m. thompson about Popeye. There is something about him that seems totally real. Also he looks a little old but I guess he's not so much, his daddy is still alive.

I don't know nobody like Popeye but his personality fits well with the old style Sea Captain he is. And I think I have met people with some Popeye traits, mostly grampas.

Daffy Duck is also my favourite character. I prefer the old personality but I also think the other one is still among the best cartoon characters ever. There are some cartoons in which he shows traits of both personalities and that works pretty well too.

Those are not cartoons but Krazy Kat has some abstract characters that are very relatable in some sort of bizarre way.

I think modern comic books have better characters than recent cartoons, though I guess the characters in something like The Simpsons, for example, should be considered as good characters, no matter what you think about the animation or writing.

PCUnfunny said...

Great post John. I am surprised you didn't profile Sylvester.

Anonymous said...

What do you think of Abbott and Costello as an idiot/asshole team? They seem very specific to me.

Ever since I was four years old, Abbott and Costello have been my favorite movie stars. A weird childlike chubby italian guy with a skinny cowardly asshole that beats him up and makes him do all his evil bidding, then steals his girlfriends.

They'll randomly have to battle evil arabs, or monsters or gangsters. Jerry Lewis can sometimes get annoying, but Costello almost always makes me laugh.

I've always found Ren and Stimpy to be more Abbott and Costello-esque than Three Stooges-esque. What are your thoughts on those guys?

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite things about old Popeye cartoons is the setting. They all take place in back alleys and run down hotels. Everything is crumbling and falling apart...but it still looks happy!

They live in a run down condemned city, but it looks like a fun place to go. There's random thugs and riff raff swarming the streets, and it looks awesome!

Tom said...

E.C. Segar's human inspiration for what became Popeye was a grizzled, very tough character who'd been a coal miner near Chester, Illinois. The newspaper syndicate made him change the suggested new character from a miner to a sailor, their theory being that more people could relate to sailors. Nothing stopped Segar's weirdness. The eating of spinach was a Fleischer studio switch. He rubbed cornish hens or something in the Thimble Theater strip to get his strength.

JohnH said...

Very insightful stuff here!

I like both the old Daffy Duck and the new one, but I don't think they should be considered the same character. It's like the old one had a brain tumor removed (or maybe, grew one) that caused him to adopt a new personality.

peldma3 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
lastangelman said...

John K wrote: E.C. Segar made up a dialect that I've never heard anyone speak except Popeye. "Infinks is almos' as iggorant as aminals!"

Everything I've read about Elzie Segar, and that is a lot, has not indicated he had ever visited or known any poor or lower class African Americans from Fort Worth, Texas. In the last five or six years, the dialect is finally dying out, but many lower class African Americans from certain sections of Fort Worth talked a lot like Popeye The Sailor. I don't meant to say they had the funny voice but the dialect - unmistakeable! I would have thought it was totally Jackie Mercer's invention, 'til I read Segar's old comics. It knocked my socks off twenty four years ago, when I arrived in North Texas, it was like finding a linguistic lost tribe of Popeye aficionados. You might want to verify this with Jim Smith, though he is from Dallas, I'm sure he must have run into people who talked that while living in this part of Texas.

Chris E. said...

I know what you mean about Daffy. He was funnier when he was crazier. The old, featherless Tweety was funnier too. He could be a major ass compared to what he is now.

lastangelman said...

Want to point everyone to interview you gave for A.V. Club recently,

David Germain said...

Does anyone know an Elmer Fudd in real life?

I've met a real life Elmer Fudd. I stayed at his place for a night in Weyburn, Saskatchewan.

He was a middle aged, soft-spoken bald man with a basement FULL of hunting "trophies" including the classic bear-skin rug. He even wedged a deer leg onto a bottle opener and held it on with crazy glue.
But, he was most proud of this badger on the wall which he adorned with a necklace of tiny Christmas lights. Mind you, they weren't on yet. He said to us "Hey fellas, watch this." Then he clapped two times and the lights started blinking. 've never tried so hard to pretend to be impressed by something in my entire life.

Charlie J. said...

"Does anyone know an Elmer Fudd in real life?"

Arthur Bryan? but he's dead.

Kali Fontecchio said...

"Moe is a caricature of a type of person we all know. He is my species. A very specific version of a relatable general type of actual human."

HA! I'll say!

Here's your aggrandizement:

As always, great post, I hope all this information doesn't leak out of my head. You conflate so many interesting topics in one post that it's overwhelming sometimes!

Anonymous said...

Hi, John,

Doesn't Popeye encourage men to beat their wives? I mean, since you grew up with it in the 50s, do you beat women?

Do you ever beat Kali? I bet you do. I mean, one reading of her little blog and I wanna...well, you know!

Maybe I'll choke the shit out of women the way Bluto encourages kids to choke Olive. Would you like that?

What about your beloved Three Stooges? Don't kids die every year from watching those shorts? It's imitable behaviour! Is this really your sick idea of entertainment?

Anonymous said...

Wonderful analysis, but didn't you also say that Daffy is a character who cannot control his urges? That characteristic is something that I would see at least ONCE when I’m out observing people.

Jim Rockford said...

They'll never be another Jerome "Curly" Howard!

He had such an original personality and was so hyper animated on screen.he's the closest thing to a human cartoon character.

I love all the Stooges but Curly was my all time favorite and pretty much stole every scene he was in!

Its amazing (and depressing) to think that we once lived in a time and society that had such a wealth of sheer talent,and somehow along the way it all evaporated and now we're left empty.
We've been gyped!

pappy d said...

I'm a bit confused. Can you explain a little more what you mean by "abstract" in this context?

Peter F. Bernard, Jr. said...

I thought Popeye was supposed to be 42 years old in the Segar strip. He had a red crewcut but the Fleischers redesigned that part for animation reasons. The weird jaw is because he has no teeth, which you can see in the black and white Fleishers (Famous Studios later gave him teeth, 4 fingers and two working eyes). I remember he ate raw steak in the Segar comics to get his strength back after being shot repeatedly in one story. It was so horrifying to see a man with no teeth tearing a raw steak apart that one of the nurses in the hospital fainted. I'm pretty sure the spinach was there before the Fleischers took over, but it was the movies that made a fetish of the spinach. I don't remember anything about cornish game hens but I haven't read those comics since the '90's.

I once worked a really stupid job when I was 19 in this video storage factory thing. I got made head librarian and I rescued this "funny" guy they wanted to fire and made him my assistant mainly because he did a great Curly impersonation. One time one of the George Liquor bosses got mad at this guy, so I swear he dropped to the ground and did that Curly spinning in a circle on the floor, going, "WOO WOO WOO!" thing. I couldn't breathe I was laughing so hard and the boss guy just had to shrug and walk away, nobody was taking his grouchiness seriously but you can't fire a guy spinning around on the floor going, "WOO WOO WOO!" (BTW That guy later was on TV commercials for a Three Stooges VHS game playing Curly.) So anyway, maybe Curly is a realistic character too, I've seen people act like him.

Steve Carras said...

So, to David Germain, you met a real Elmer Fudd? Did he have an accent? [That is, [Katherine Heigl in 27 Dresses] one that converts "r" to "w"'s?like Elmer?[/Katherine Heigl in "27 dresses"][sorry, I love that flick] Just kidding.

heh heh heh heh

BTW I guess most of us know now what happens to Elmer's predecessor in "Hare-Um Scare=Um"[1939],don't we? ;-)