“They don’t blame you — so long as you’re funny!” –Jack Point, in The Yeomen of the Guard, by W.S. Gilbert.
One of the most interesting beta reader comments on my new novel was “Why don’t you make it funnier?”
This one stuck with me, because I already had a sneaking suspicion that the book was too humorless. Paul Graham’s point about good design sticks in my head: “Good design may not have to be funny, but it’s hard to imagine something that could be called humorless also being good design.”
I’ve struggled with this quite a bit. The book isn’t a comedy by any means—it deals with some very dark subjects. And yet… that doesn’t seem like a valid excuse. For example, racism, murder, and rape are all major elements in the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird, and yet it still has plenty of extremely humorous moments as well.
I read somewhere that a novel is supposed to capture “the totality of life”. If so, then it makes sense that it needs to have both the dark and the light moments—after all, real life has both.
But how do you put humor into a serious story? You can’t just put in a slapstick comedy routine for characters who are struggling with matters of life and death. It would seem out of place.
This is the problem that so-called “comic relief” characters were created to solve. And sometimes, that can work. But it’s easy for it to go wrong, and then you get something like Jar Jar Binks—a character whose antics clash with the main narrative and annoy the audience.
A better route is to have characters who are well-rounded enough to be both funny and serious. And actually, having funny characters is probably helpful in terms of the larger goal of making the reader care about them. Funny characters are more likeable.
One of the complaints I got about The Start of the Majestic World was the lack of banter between the two protagonists. This was because I just generally don’t like banter—it comes across as too forced to me. But I wonder now if this was really about an overall lack of humor in the book. (I did try to make some of the supporting characters entertaining, if not exactly comic.)
It’s tricky to find the right point to insert humor in a non-humor book. At any given moment, the characters are dealing with serious problems, and so there never seems to be any specific point where it makes sense to insert comedy, even though the overall vibe is that the book needs more of it.
Another way is to put humor in the descriptions. The difficulty here is that my book is set in the distant future, and as such requires a fair amount of world-building and information about how the futuristic society works. And it’s tough to give the reader that information, much of which will ultimately be relevant to the plot, and be funny at the same time.
Even more importantly, humor relies on a shared frame of reference, so it’s hard to come up with really funny things to say in a futuristic society. Humor also involves playing with social norms, and when dealing with unfamiliar social norms, it doesn’t seem funny when they get violated. It just seems confusing.
This still doesn’t justify a lack of humor, though. Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke infused their science fiction stories with wit. What it comes down to is being able to write plausibly human and relatable characters in a futuristic and/or alien setting. That’s what I’m trying to do, anyway—write characters with both serious and silly sides to them, and then put them in situations where the different aspects of their personalities can appear.
Interesting. I’ve never thought that humor is a necessary element of serious fiction. I guess that it makes sense if it works within the context of the characters and the story, but I wouldn’t try to force it into a story.
I never really considered it necessary either. But as I think about it, most of my favorite works of fiction, even the extremely dark ones, do have some humorous elements to them. Could be just a coincidence though.
Humor can be tricky in a serious novel, especially if it’s forced. Like you, I’m not a fan of banter that doesn’t go anywhere. Everything, dialogue included, should work on moving the story forward or developing character. Sometimes the humor falls naturally, for example through a character’s thoughts. We all tend to use sarcasm or berate ourselves internally, and this can add an element of humor. I think your idea of having a more humorous sidekick is good too. In my upcoming novel, my character’s female friend makes an occasional joke, and that adds some levity to the story.
Good point. I certainly found some of Jeremy’s thoughts in “Eating Bull” quite funny, even though he was in pretty serious situations.
Thank you. Glad to hear it.
Yeah, this is always a tricky thing if it doesn’t come across naturally. But I guess that’s part of our job, right? 🙂
One of my favorite writing gurus, Dwight Swain, says that humor is another tool to cycle in and out of tension in a story, and its that tension cycle that keeps most people reading. I try to keep this in mind if I find myself swinging too far in one direction!
That’s a good tip. I never thought of it as a cycle, but that’s true–good stories often have that quality.