Running Gag Heroes: Entertaining or Pathetic?

There are many heroes that have something they get teased about.  My own knowledge of this stems more from manga and anime than anything else.  Still, I remember Halt in Ranger’s Apprentice gets teased once or twice for the way his hair is cut.  That means it isn’t only Japanese culture that allows heroes to be silly or the butt of a joke.  Not just the butt of a joke either, but a running joke that isn’t simply comments on how deadly and badass a hero is.  Height issues, bad hair, ‘creepy’ eyes, and a variety of other flaws can be used here.  Most importantly, this is typically something that doesn’t go away easily or at all.  Hence, it’s something that can get brought up constantly.

I’ve heard a few arguments against this and I’ll get those out of the way.  Some feel a hero who is teased is seen as weak and unworthy of the protagonist role.  Even flawed, they should have the utmost respect of those around them.  At the very least, they shouldn’t react poorly to such comments.  For example, teasing someone about their height should be countered with either calm ignoring or a witty comeback.  Because we all know most people do this in real life . . . I couldn’t write that with a straight face.  Real people get annoyed with they are teased about their flaws and have knee-jerk reactions to such barbs, especially under stress.  Heroes are usually stressed.  As a 5’5” guy with 6’+ friends, I’ve received a fair amount of teasing for this.  I don’t always react maturely and that’s part of being human.  For some reason, people feel that such a thing is a bad sign for a hero and wish for them to be teflon against teasing.

Edward Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist

Edward Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist

So, why would you want to do this to a character?  You might not want to and it might not fit in the atmosphere of your story, but there are positives to making the character the butt of a running gag.

  1. It shows they’re human in the way they’re react and that they’re not perfect.  We all have triggers, so our characters having them isn’t too far-fetched.
  2. Humor can be an excellent ice-breaker and tension reliever even in literature.  A few lines where this happens can change a scene that is getting darker than intended and cheer people up.
  3. Proof of character friendship can come from these scenes.  Good friends tease each other and shrug it off as an act of camaraderie.  It isn’t malicious or immature if done correctly.  For example, two characters can have a quick insult/tease conversation when they’re in a mild disagreement.
  4. For characters who tend to be haughty, these types of interactions can bring them down a few pegs.  As much as people hate flawed characters that get teased, pompous perfect heroes get equal if not more flack.  A teasing can help to ground them.

Now, this isn’t for everyone and every genre.  If you don’t want to have humor or high school drama then this wouldn’t work.  It definitely falls into quirkiness, but it can be fun to read and write.

So, anybody use running gags that happen at the hero’s expense?  Any examples of your favorites?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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28 Responses to Running Gag Heroes: Entertaining or Pathetic?

  1. Sue Vincent says:

    That reminds me of a quote from the intro to the Sea Priestess by Dion Fortune, one of the most revered writers of esoteric books both fiction and otherwise…”“Equally the lady novelist will provide her readers with such males as never stepped into a pair of trousers; on whom, in fact, trousers would be wasted.”
    Humour, for me, every time.

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  2. sknicholls says:

    All heroes should be flawed to some extent. I love that humor can be introduced without being too critical of a character. A clumsy mistake, an error in judgement that places a group in an amusing situation, etc..

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  3. Kaufman's Kavalkade says:

    I think they are cool to very very bad, haha.

    Depends on the story and specific context.

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  4. MishaBurnett says:

    I am reminded of the way that people keep telling Snake Plisscin, “I heard you were dead,” in Escape From New York. James Bond also gets a lot of teasing regarding his reputation as a cad. So I think it can provide a sense of continuity for a character.

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  5. M T McGuire says:

    I think that when a hero gets teased at the beginning, it just makes us sympathise. We all see ourselves as the underdog. If someone who’s a bit quirky gets to do great things, it makes us think we can. So I don’t get the bullet proof teflon hero. Fine if they end up like that but at the beginning there has to be some fallibility or we can’t identify with them. I suppose it depends what you want your heroes to do. I like them to be flawed and human. The heroine of my new W.I.P. is bullied a fair bit.

    Cheers

    MTM

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  6. twixie13 says:

    As long as it’s not their one defining trait, I’ve got no problem with it. It’s just a fun way to add to a character. I’ve been playing with a few of these with my major characters. Travis, for example, gets a bit of teasing for his ever-growing hair, the fact that he tends to talk a bit too much at times, an inability to keep secrets, and the fact that he can’t keep himself out of trouble. That, and his eating habits (the man can pretty much down a full extra large pizza in one sitting and still have room for more). That’s just what he’d get from family and friends, though. Otherwise, it’s pretty much just condensed to one simple phrase “pain in the ass”.

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    • It is kind of sad when a main character is nothing more than the running gag. Doing that with a secondary or tertiary character (Cabbage Man in Avatar: The Last Airbender) can work, but the main needs meat on their bones. Pain in the ass is always a good one. 🙂

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  7. melissajanda says:

    Every character (heroes included) should have flaws, quirks, or things that they are teased about. It makes them interesting, even endearing. Plus, it’s difficult for us mere mortals to relate to someone who is utterly perfect.

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  8. I like a little bit of quirky humor – especially in fantasy/quest type senarios. It helps give perspective, I think. Alas, I’m only allowed to use D as the butt of my jokes on the blog. And even then, I think i’m the butt of his jokes more often than not.

    My two protagonists tease each other mildly, but there’s too much going on for them to catch a breath in the last half of the book, and they don’t have time to tease anymore, which is actually the point. Once the tension breaks, they tease and that’s how they know they’re okay with one another.

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    • You bring up a good example of how such a literary tool wouldn’t work. The personality of a character and the atmosphere of the book has to factor into the use of a running gag. I do like how teasing is the sign of tension breaking.

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  9. I like all your reasons, and I have to say that humor is one of the most memorable and beloved parts of stories. Do you ever hear someone saying, “you have to read this book, it’s so depressing?” No, they say, “you have to read this book, it’s funny!”

    As with all writing, you have to sense the right time and not repeat it too often lest it become annoying.

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    • I actually have heard someone tell me to read a book because it would rip my heart apart with sorrow. I’m still not sure how they thought it would be a selling point.

      Definitely all about the timing and not overdoing it. Essence of a good joke in my opinion.

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  10. This is actually a very good point. I’m thinking about giving my, arguably “main” character, who is male, a running… not so much gag, but a problem that would literally debilitate him from time to time in a very un-manly way. I’m hoping that I can pull this off without making it seem convenient and/or lowering his ‘esteem’ as the protagonist, but it’s still an excellent point. However, I think it’s silly to expect heroes to be perfect–to HAVE no flaws, let alone not be touchy about them. Isn’t everyone always saying that you should write People, not Characters? So I would assume that’s a large part–making them seem better-than-real, and yet still appear to be real people.

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    • It’s funny. Everyone wants realistic characters, but there are those handful of flaws that garner negative feedback. Promiscuity, easily depressed, whining, and severe arrogance are real flaws that I’ve seen readers despise at the first showing. That could just be the vocal minority though.

      Your idea to have a character with an occasional debilitation reminds me of an anime/manga called Ranma 1/2. Been a while, but I think it was the main male character was cursed so that he turns into a girl when splashed with cold water. To return, he has to get splashed with hot water. Anime does a lot of the gender bending curses, I’ve noticed.

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      • Ah ha, oh yeah! Ranma. Man, that was a long time ago, but I know what you mean. Maybe wish fulfillment? (Because you know Ranma spent a lot of time behind closed doors with that female body of his…) I personally would find it incredibly annoying to keep changing from one to the other, but hey, maybe that’s just me.

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      • I agree. There was another anime called Fruits Basket where the members of a family are cursed to turn into animals of the Chinese zodiac (also one guy turns into a cat) if they’re hugged.

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      • I have to say, as far as Fruit’s Basket was concerned… nothing is more of a turn-off than trying to get it on with someone and then having it become a bestiality moment. Totally unfortunate for all of them. xD (Although the saving grace being that the other zodiac could hug them, but that seriously narrowed the dating pool and made it close to incestuous, but…)

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      • Yeah. I wasn’t really clear on how the family hadn’t died off.

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  11. I am currently catching up with ‘Game of Thrones’ and love Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf. He gets the best and funniest lines, and delivers them deadpan every time. ‘Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them!’
    As an ex-member of the armed forces, I’m accustomed to ‘insulting’ banter and tried to inject some into ‘A Construct of Angels.’
    Two Paramedics (one is the female protagonist) are rushing to a call; The traffic ahead panics at the sound of the sirens and ends up blocking the road.
    She sounded the bull horn several times, a deep honking note the public often mistook for an approaching fire engine. The panicking drivers squeezed aside to let the ambulance pass.
    “Thanks, partner,” Alec smiled grimly.
    “Hey, I had to do something. Your driving is deplorable.”

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    • I see that kind of banter a lot in books and TV shows. There’s a sense of camaraderie about it and it takes the edge off a dark scene. I grew up on Marx Brothers, so I do a lot of one-liners if I find the opening.

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