Pop quiz: what is one character archetype that appears in almost every Shakespeare play AND Disney movie?
I’ll give you a hint by listing some characters: Bottom, Puck, the Iguana in Tangled, Dori in Finding Nemo, the Clown in All’s Well That Ends Well, the Carpet in Aladdin. Got it yet?
Second hint: it’s not a Disney princess.
The answer is the Clown or the Fool. If you use this archetype in your writing, you could dramatically transform your storytelling. Understanding it will also give you a much deeper understanding of the way story works, as the fool is a ubiquitous presence in both classic and contemporary storytelling.
The fool is not necessarily a clown or an idiot. They are a general “low” character. Disney makes this easy by making the fool smaller than everyone else. The fool becomes a talking monkey or cricket or meerkat.
In A Midsummer Nights Dream the fool is literally named Bottom and becomes a literal ass in the second act.
However, in non-animated modern stories, the fool might just be a klutz like Ben Stiller in every movie he’s in.
General Observations and Examples
The fool is the classic sidekick. The Lone Ranger took this archetype quite literally, naming the hero’s sidekick Tonto. However, modern comedies love to employ the fool as the main character. I mentioned Ben Stiller above, but Ashton Kutcher, Adam Sandler, Jim Carey, and, of course, Will Ferrell are a few other examples. Nearly every film they are in, they play the fool.
The fool is usually male. However, there are a few exceptions, for example, Dori in Finding Nemo and Melissa McCarthy’s character, Megan, in Bridesmaids (but you’ll notice Megan dressed as a man most of that movie).
In medieval plays, they often wore masks. In animated films, they are a mask. Think of the Iguana in Tangled.
The fool also plays several important functions in a storyline.
1. Comic Relief
The fool provides comic relief by crossing cultural norms.
Often they do this by being free to express more of their emotions than is culturally acceptable. For example, Will Ferrell’s character Buddy in Elf, can say, “I love you,” to his father in public even though it’s not culturally acceptable because he is completely innocent.
Fools efficiently characterize every character who comes into contact with them. The truest test of character is how you treat those who are beneath you.
The character is a good guy if they treat the fool like a best friend, as Rapunzel treats her little Iguana in Tangled. They’re a bad guy if they treat him like a tool for their own ends, as Jafar treats Iago in Aladdin.
Often, a bad guy who is pretending to be good will reveal their true character by mistreating the fool.
The fool acts as the hero’s conscience. I realized this when I remembered Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio. “Remember, Pinocchio,” says the Wish Upon A Star Lady, “be a good boy, and always let your conscience be your guide.”
Since the fool is already unfashionable, they have the freedom to always speak the truth, even when it is awkward or even dangerous to do so.
However, he also understands it’s often his humor that allows him to speak truth. As Oscar Wilde said, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”
4.An Invitation to Freedom
Last, the fool often acts as an explicit or implicit challenge to experience the kind of innocence and joy we had as children. We are all fools, and we all wear masks. The fool invites us—ironically, since they wear them—to take off our masks and live free. As J. Phillip Newell says in his Shakespeare and the Human Mystery:
The fool is calling us to be truly ourselves and points out the falseness of what we have become. He is not, however, over and against his hearers. Rather he invites them to discover the fool within themselves. In All’s Well That Ends Well, when Paroles says that he has found he fool, the Clown replies, ‘Did you find me in yourself, sir?’
What are some of your favorite examples of the fool in literature and film? What foolish characteristics do they reveal?
Your main character is doing something they shouldn’t. Practice using the fool by writing about how they try to get him or her to stop.
Write for fifteen minutes. Post your practice in the comments.
And if you do submit something, be a good critique partner and comment on someone else’s practice.