Monday, April 5, 2010

Characterization the Chuck Jones Way

Some of you probably already know who Chuck Jones is (or was—he died in 2002 at the age of 89). For those of you who don’t, think of the classic Warner Brothers cartoons: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, even the roadrunner and Wiley Coyote. Chuck Jones had a hand in all of them. But my favorite quote from Chuck Jones is something to the effect that we all think we’re Bugs, but in reality we’re Daffy (I’d give you the exact words, but I can’t find the freakin’ quote on the InterWeb). That’s actually a profound insight into human nature, the way we all think we’re tremendously clever, but we’re actually pretty inept. It made me wonder if maybe we could learn something about characterization from those Warner Brothers cartoons—could we use those characters as sort of avatars (if you will) for our characters?

For example, consider a couple of lesser known cartoon characters: Foghorn Leghorn and Henry the Chicken Hawk. Foghorn is a chicken, of course. A very large chicken with a deep voice. Henry is an extremely small chicken hawk with large ambitions. Foghorn is also very smart, but occasionally too certain of his own cleverness. As a predator, Henry is pretty inept, but he’s determined to succeed in carrying Foghorn off for a meal. In reality, neither is in any particular danger, but your sympathies bounce back and forth. Foghorn, however, has the best lines: “You’re built too low to the ground, boy, the fast ones fly over your head.”

In a sense, Foghorn is the avatar for every hero who’s a little too sure of himself, a little too prone to push his luck too far. Henry is an avatar for the villain who’s unskilled but not harmless, and who is ignored at the hero’s peril. I have to admit: there’s a little bit of Foghorn in me. For me, it may be “I think I’m Bugs, but I’m really Foghorn.”

I find these Chuck Jones avatars in my own work all the time. Bugs shows up a lot. Sort of Pete Toleffson (Wedding Bell Blues), with a dash of Wonder Dentist (Venus in Blue Jeans). And Daffy is a slightly smarter Ham Linklatter (Venus in Blue Jeans and Long Time Gone). Yosemite Sam has some things in common with Billy Kent (Venus in Blue Jeans), and Allie (Wedding Bell Blues) shares some qualities with Porky Pig (no, not her weight).

Maybe we could carry this to its logical extreme: instead of the Hero’s Journey and all that stuff from Joseph Campbell, maybe we can start identifying our characters with their cartoon counterparts. Instead of asking “Who’s the protagonist, the antagonist, the contagonist” we could go with “Okay, who’s the Bugs in this book? Who’s the Daffy?”

All right, all right, I know, it’s not serious. But sometimes I think we need a vacation from the serious business of writing. So if y’all will excuse me now, I think I’ll take a carton break.

So how about it—who’s your cartoon avatar? What character is closest to your heart (or your personality)?


Debra St. John said...

I'm a Mickey Mouse girl.

And although I don't use any of his characeristics for characters when I write, I usually try to throw something Disney related into each of my books.

Meg Benjamin said...

Wow, another author I know does that too. Disney as talisman!

Kelly Jamieson said...

That is so funny Meg! I have to give some thought to cartoon characters...hmmm...

Erin Nicholas said...

Love this post, Meg. Love Looney Tunes! Okay, let's see... I kind of like Porky Pig. He always has this rolling-his-eyes at Daffy thing that I love. He's way smarter than the rest give him credit for. Even a little sarcastic at times. But sweet too. I'm afraid I might be more like Elmer Fudd-- bumbling my way through and just lucky I haven't shot myself in the foot yet.

Meg Benjamin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.