Episode 126: Humbugs, Grinches, and Misers

On December 19, Kasie and Rex had their last show of 2020. To play to holiday crowds and celebrate all the reasons 2020 made us grumpy, we’re taking on Scrooge. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Instigator Characters & the Classic Scrooge


  • Troublemaker or Antagonist?
  • How “Scrooge” became the Vaseline of Misers
  • When and not to push one of these jerks into your story
Okay, but you know that’s a re-gift, right?
Photo by Nicole Michalou on Pexels.com

Link to the podcast

Segment 1

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Glad to announce an upcoming event for you literary arts folks. Local poet and friend of the show, John Starino headlines Uncle Fester’s Sunday/Funday Open Mic from 2-5 p.m.on January 3rd at Uncle Fester’s bar. It’s a Facebook event so you can look it up there. We’ll add the link here: https://fb.me/e/1RSPnOV7B  Looking forward to doing some day drinking down there.

Okay, let’s do this.

When I was a little girl, I loved Shirley Temple movies. My favorite was Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm but I liked Curly Top and The Little Princess and The Little Colonel, too. All except Heidi. Heidi’s Grandpa was such a dick. I mean, really? You’re gonna be mean to a child? One with such cute dimples and curly hair? Come. On.

Okay, so he’s not the only grouch on film (link). From the fist-shaking Mr. Wilson, neighbor to a certain Dennis the Menace, to Carl Frederickson in “Up,” old men tend to detest children. The spectrum of Scrooge stretches from the mildly miffed Red Forman of That 70’s Show to the diabolical Severus Snape of Harry Potter fame. And it’s usually the recklessness, carelessness, and cheerfulness of children that sets them off.

But being a grouch isn’t the same as being a Scrooge which isn’t the same as being Iago, so today we’re going to walk through all the uses of “grumpy” as a character trait.

Segment 2

The topic started as the “instigator” character. So we’ll begin there.

The Instigator

Also called the “tritagonist” or tertiary main character (link), the instigator is the one who causes the suffering, forces the change, makes the “normal” not normal anymore. Examples of this behavior: telling the protagonist’s secret, cheating the protagonist out of a desire, volunteering the protagonist for something, nudge the protagonist toward a realization of some kind.

This link explains that in dystopian literature, the protagonist sometimes doesn’t really recognize the “wrongness” of the experience without that nudge. This is true in the Insurgent series of teen fiction where our protagonist has a twin brother who is dedicated to the rules and she sees her own skepticism as a fault. Until she’s tested and the tester hints that she should lie about her results and escape because the system is wrong.

I like the instigator for:

  • Knowing something the protagonist doesn’t
  • Having something to prove
  • Having a grudge or vendetta s/he’s too much of a coward to act upon
  • Having ambition above his/her station
  • Lying to the protagonist — or getting the story mistaken, maybe misunderstanding
  • Not being able to let something go — think John Goodman’s character, Walter, in The Big Lebowski, just chews on some small injustice until he’s infuriated by it. 
    • David Mamet’s American Buffalo is driven by such a character, Teach, who disrupts the original plan Don has and cuts Fletcher, Don’s accomplice out, only to get them both double-crossed.

Also known as the MacGuffin in film, under which name it might be an object, a message, or a tool. In Star Wars, it’s R2D2. The MacGuffin originated with Hitchcock but Lucas has been known to say he prefers the audience care about the MacGuffin. Some famous examples: Hamlet’s father’s ghost, in Pulp Fiction, Vincent and Jules collect the mysterious suitcase (link).

Segment 3

The Miser

So “Scrooge” becomes a synonym for ‘miser’ because he refuses Bob Cratchit time off or a Christmas bonus. The miser, in literature, is frequently an old, rich, white man. But not all misers are wealthy (link) many are greedy because they desire wealth beyond their circumstances and are threatened by the possibility of losing it.

Alternatively, there’s an emotional miserness (think “Up”) where the character is established and comfortable in their self-sufficiency. The do not want to introduce uncertainty or change, so they reject new people, new circumstances, and never ask for help. 

The redemption or transformation of this miser is typically the arc of the story. Think Heidi’s grandpa, right? But come on. How many times do we need to see this story? Isn’t it the morality tales all over again? Don’t be a dick or some cute kid might come and warm your frigid heart.

Consider the Grinch. Here’s a guy that’s just left out, right? He feels like the Whoos in Whooville have it so great and their greatness is stupid. He’s jealous. This is a different motivation entirely, right? Jealousy?

What about Shylock from The Merchant of Venice who cannot accept that people would simply give without expecting something in return. Is he just jaded? Would we call that character cynical nowadays? (other literary misers here)

Some traits that might indicate “Miser” or “Scrooge” or “Grinch” 

  • Grumpiness
  • Terse language
  • Refusal to listen
  • No touching
  • Lots of clothes — coat, hat, gloves, scarf, sweater, etc.
  • Formality to language — “Mr” and “Mrs”, full sentences, no slang
  • Nostalgic or has an affinity for tradition

Segment 4

The Principal

So this is a job — Principal — but it indicates anyone with authority, any character with a hold of “that’s not how it’s done” and can include a rich grandpa, a disapproving aunt, a coach, a boss, a mother-in-law. The character whose approval is wanted for some reason or other. Maybe she’s in the way of what the protagonist wants, maybe he’s the wish-granter and has requirements for worthiness.

I like the principal for its cyclical appearance in the story. Inevitably, the protagonist is going to blow the first encounter with this person. So let’s talk about how to set the person up as someone the reader wants to earn the respect of, too. And then we’ll talk about how the protagonist can blow it and recover.

Authority has a lot of looks and it’s really a scale — least authority (or perceived) to supreme authority. Think mall cop to God, right?

Some questions to ask about what level of authority you need in your Grumpy Smurf character:

  • Why doesn’t this person want the protagonist to succeed?
  • What can this person do to prevent the protagonist from succeeding?
  • What would make this person cooperate with the protagonist?
  • What happens if the protagonist gets past the principal?

So many great examples of this, some are borderline antagonists, right?

  • Mr. Rooney from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
  • Severus Snape or Professor McGonagall from Harry Potter — any of the faculty really, except Lupin who was a terrible professor
  • Any Imperial Officer in Star Wars
  • Santa Claus in Rudolph’s story (and Buddy the Elf’s story, too)
  • President Bartlett in The West Wing
  • Cops. All cops.
  • TSA agents
  • Concert security guards (“do you have a backstage pass?”)
  • Elf-costumed helpers at Santaland at Macy’s

How do authority characters instigate?

  • Protagonist feels unjustly disciplined by them
  • Their “no” seems to be automatic, expected, mechanic, but unreasonable
  • They diminish the protagonist’s quest by enforcing rules that cannot possibly matter as much as the quest
  • They force the protagonist to get creative — be charming, be clever, or be fast

There’s a binary choice here — either the authority character is overpowered and overcome, or they are convinced and turned into a co-conspirator. We now they’re going to fail, but we don’t know how (usually).

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