How to Write a Tragic Character: Frank Grimes

Today we’ll be exploring one of the most tragic characters in the Simpsons canon, Homer’s Enemy, Frank Grimes. Frank Grimes or Grimey appeared in what many consider to be one of the darkest episodes in all of The Simpsons. What made episode 23 of season 8 so unique and unforgettable was that the Frank Grimes character actually represented a normal person (a hardworking, persevering American everyman) stepping into The Simpsons Universe. Frank Grimes is most of us. 

But what was it that made Frank Grimes so relatable yet so tragic? It was the shape of his story.

Charting characters’ journeys through a story is a good way to ensure they don’t stay stagnant.  This can be done by monitoring how the character moves up and down the rankings of fortune. What happens to this character? What does he or she do from beginning to end? And do those events and actions yield something good or something bad? 

In a 2004 lecture, the author of Slaughter-House Five, Kurt Vonnegut showed the variety of shapes a story can take on a graph he drew on a chalkboard. On the vertical axis (The G-I axis) top represents good fortune for the character (they get a promotion, they get married, or they win a championship) and at the bottom ill fortune (they get sick, they get fired, or they lose everything in a hurricane). On the horizontal axis (The B-E axis) the left is the beginning and the right is the end of the story. 

Using this graph we can see the story of Frank Grimes unfold more clearly and recognize how to use triumphs and failures to build a character. 

Frank Grimes’ life begins like any other somewhere just above good fortune for having been born. Yet early in his story, he is stricken with bad luck. At the age of four, Frank Grimes was abandoned by his family. Orphaned at such a young age, this set his life into a downward trend. 

At least he gets a job, but he doesn’t rise up far, for it’s a job as a delivery boy, delivering toys to richer more fortunate children. Fortune continues going down for many years until his 18th birthday, when Frank Grimes is blown up in a silo explosion. The bottom falls out and we find our character as low as he’s ever been. 

Grimes recovers, slowly rising upward, and begins learning to hear and feel pain again. Gradually he climbs using his leisure time to study science by mail. Seventeen years past since his accident, working hard and persisting, Frank Grimes finally crosses the line from ill fortune into good fortune. At 35 years old, he received his correspondence school diploma in Nuclear Physics, with a minor in determination. He experiences a blimp immediately after this as a bird tries to steal his diploma. 

A week after, Frank Grimes’ fortune soared higher, when his segment in Kent’s People aired and Mr. Burns sought to hire him as the Executive Vice President of the Power Plant. Now, if Frank Grimes’ story was to end here, it would be a true underdog story, a man starting at zero and rising to the top. However, in this episode, this is where the story really begins. The story begins with Frank Grimes at his peak and we see how quickly his fortune reverses. 

Grimes spent no more than one full day at the pinnacle of his fortune. The next day Mr. Burns watched another segment of Kent’s People, this time about a heroic dog, and had already forgotten about the self-made-man. 

Having been put out of the way, Grimes begins a slow decline into madness. First with Homer touching his pencils, then calling him Stretch and eating his special dietetic lunch, then destroying his pencils, and finally being annoying and shirking his job, especially when there’s a Five-Thirteen,  

Even as annoying as Homer is, Grimes doesn’t fall below origin, that is until he saves Homer’s life, knocking a haphazardly placed beaker of sulphuric acid out of his hand into the wall, melting it completely. This just so happens as Mr. Burns is walking by. Things drop significantly, when Mr. Burns doesn’t terminate Grimes, but gives him one more chance, at a reduced salary. Grimes is not at rock bottom, things aren’t worse than when he was caught in the silo explosion, but it’s a dramatic turning point for Grimes, who wants nothing more to do with Homer. 

As bad as Grimes’ life is living in a single room above a bowling alley below another bowling alley and working a second job at the foundry, things don’t get any worse, until Homer tricks him to come over to his palace for an extravagant lobster dinner and to show off his perfect family. After seeing all of Homer’s achievements, going to space and winning a Grammy, the floor falls away and Grimes nosedives, but catches himself when he storms out after calling Homer a fraud. 

In an effort to get even, expose and disgrace Homer, and get some positive fortune, Grimes fools Homer into participating in the Children’s Nuclear Design Contest. Things were looking good for a short moment, but then, Homer hit his car on his way home to work on his design. All of that would be fine, if Homer is embarrassed on stage, but his plan fails and Homer wins the competition. This time, Grimes is unable to catch himself. Losing his mind, he mimics Homer self destructively, causing a scene and eventually electrocuting himself to death. Grimes’ life ends at a new low point. To accomplish all he had and to end up so disrespected, Frank Grimes’ character journey truly represents the tragedy of the American working class. How hard working people can overcome so much and still implode upon themselves. 

Yes, Homer’s Enemy is a dark episode, but it’s also one of the most memorable ones, because when we watch The Simpsons, in reality, more often than not, we are in Frank Grimes’ shoes. We all face good and ill fortune, that is what makes a character relatable. If you want to create your own character that experiences profound change, I recommend plotting their life on a story shape graph. Make sure they face good and ill fortune through their lives. Then choose a starting point. In the case of Frank Grimes, the story starts while he’s most fortunate. Maybe that’s a good place to start the story of your tragic character as well. 

Do you want to see the shape of a story for another famous character? Let me know in the comments. It can be from a movie, television show or literature. I’ll do my best to make it possible.

My favourite episode of The Simpsons is Lemon of Troy. It’s arguably the best written 22 minute of television. Allow me to explain. Read the article here.

For more writing and editing inspiration and stories, please consider signing up for my mailing list. You won’t receive emails from me often, but when you do, it’ll include only works that I’m most proud of.

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