“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.

Sometimes you have story ideas that don’t work out. They seem like brilliant ideas at first, but then they just slowly die.  It can take a while to even realize your story has died–I know I’ve kept working on some long after they’ve passed on.

Last month, the Economic Security Project had a contest to write a short story about Universal Basic Income. I tried my hand at it, but didn’t get far. I thought readers might be interested in seeing an example of a story that died.

(more…)

[You can make a case for any of these characters being “Mary Sues”. From left: Robert Pattinson as Edward from Twilight, Miranda Lawson from Mass Effect 2, Sean Connery as James Bond, and Daisy Ridley as Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. All images via respective Wiki pages and re-used under ‘fair use”]

First, let me begin by defining terms. Or more accurately, letting Wikipedia do it for me:

A Mary Sue (if female) or Marty Stu (if male) is an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character…

The term “Mary Sue” comes from the name of a character created by Paula Smith in 1973… The story starred Lieutenant Mary Sue (“the youngest Lieutenant in the fleet — only fifteen and a half years old”), and satirized unrealistic characters in Star Trek fan fiction.

“Mary Sue” is now a shorthand for an unrealistically capable character, with no flaws or foibles. It’s the mark of an amateurish writer, too lazy to flesh out their characters.

Naturally, there’s a discussion to be had here about the use of the term’s sexist connotations, and whether the pejorative “Mary Sue” is now used by lazy critics to put down any female protagonist. It’s a very interesting issue, but it’s not the thing about Mary Sues I want to discuss here.

What I want to address is the motivation for creating such characters in the first place. Often, critics assume that the reason is wish-fulfillment; that authors imagine themselves to be these characters, and make them perfect as a result. (Critics usually assume that everyone is as conceited as they are.)

But perfect–or at least, incredibly highly-skilled–characters are actually very tempting for reasons of plot, especially in a science-fiction or fantasy setting. Simply put; when your plot takes place in a big, complicated universe, you want your character to be able to participate in every aspect of that universe.

If I’m writing a sprawling epic with, say, a league of heroic knights who go around fighting dragons, it’s a bit of a letdown if I say “But sadly, Bob the protagonist was an archer who knew nothing about horsemanship or swordsmanship, and so could never be a knight.” By the same token, if Bob is a knight, then it’s a real shame if he can’t be in any archery attacks.

When you’re writing a story, you generally want your protagonist to be able to participate in most of the action. Having them figure out and solve the central conflict makes a better story than: “Bob found out a lot of interesting information about dragons. So he gave it to the experts who handle that sort of thing. 8 months later, he read in the newspaper about how the dragon issue had been solved. ‘Huh,’ he said. ‘So that’s how that all played out.’ The End.”

Now sure, you can have lots of characters with different skill sets, and still have the protagonist be involved in every step. This is relatively easy to do if your setting is the present day or recent past. For example, in a mystery novel, Ted the Brooding Detective With The Dark Past can take the evidence to Jill the Wisecracking Forensics Expert With The Rebellious Streak. (And if they fall in love, then you’ve almost got all the characterization you need.)

But this gets harder to do the more exotic your setting is, because then you have to make up a bunch of skill sets for people This is especially true in science fiction. So, there’s the girl who flies the ships, there’s the guy who fixes the ships, there’s the other guy who fixes the robots, there’s some alien who mines the raw materials for building both the ships and the robots…

It can be done, don’t get me wrong. But it’s tough to do it, and very, very tempting to the novice writer to just say, “We need to get this plot moving! We haven’t got time to meet the guy who waxes the floors. It’s faster to just make the protagonist do it.”

Johnathan found himself feeling rather down.  It was the zeitgeist; for everywhere there was corruption and vice. Decency, civility, industriousness and all the other virtues had gone out of the world. Decadence and rot, from the upper echelons of society down to Johnathan’s own place of business, had worked their worst.

And so as he walked through the dingy back-alleys to his gloomy little apartment, his mood was understandably grim.  As he approached the stained white door, the faded American flag next to it caught the breeze and hit him in the face.  He cursed and, in the imprudent fury that occasionally possesses a frustrated person, tore the banner, pole and all, from its fixture beside the door.

Grumbling profanities, he opened the door and went inside the dark apartment, flag and pole tucked under his arm. He set down his briefcase and entered his kitchen to make himself a meager dinner. The kitchen was dark; barely illuminated by the dim light that filtered through the window by the stove.  He fumbled for the light switch and finally found it. But on turning on the light, he found he was not alone.

Seated at his kitchen table was a tall, olive-skinned woman, dressed in a style that Johnathan would have described as “Victorian”, though in fact that was not the correct period.  She wore a full-length red and white striped dress, with a shiny blue caraco, with golden epaulettes at the shoulder.

After dropping the flag and recoiling in surprise, Johnathan managed to blurt out, “Who are you? What are you doing? I’ll call the police!”

The woman smiled slightly. “No need for that, my friend,” she said coolly. “Although I request that you pick up that lovely flag you have rather unceremoniously left lying on the floor.”

“What, this?” said Johnathan stupidly.  “It’s old and faded. I may as well pitch it.”

“Please don’t,” said the woman, in a tone of annoyance that told Johnathan he had better pick up the flag already. Having done so, he returned to his line of questioning: “What are you doing in my apartment, ma’am?” he asked, and then added, “I did not invite you. Please leave before I call the police.”

“I have not, and will not, steal any of your belongings, nor harm you in any way.” she said calmly. “I only want to talk to you.”

“About what?” Johnathan said, with ill-concealed irritation. “I don’t even know who you are!”

“Columbia is my name,” she answered. “And I want to talk to you about America.”

“You want… what?” he said in confusion. “Well, I don’t know why you want to talk about that, but if you want to know what I think: America’s going to hell in a handbasket. It’s a disaster.  The government is nothing but criminals and liars, out to make a buck.”

“Ah, but that is politics,” she replied. “That is not America.”

“Well, call it whatever you want, but the bottom line is nobody has a clue what they’re doing. They can’t hold anyone accountable, they can’t do their own jobs right–it’s chaos everywhere; people are out of work, they can’t afford decent food or a decent place to live, and criminals are all over the place–killing people, stealing stuff, and, and–and breaking into people’s houses in the middle of the night!” (He concluded this speech by pointing towards Columbia.)

“Can you really think of nothing good about the country?” she queried.

“Oh, it used to be better, back in the old days.  People weren’t perfect, but at least they tried,” he muttered.  “It was a great country once, but it’s all ruined because people are too stupid or too afraid to try to fix things anymore.”

“And what was it that made it great?” she asked.

He shook his head,  “I… I don’t know.  Do you think if I knew that I would be here?”

She folded her hands. “Let me tell you something about America: it does not have as much history as other parts of the world do. People who come here are looking to build something new–without all the baggage of the old world weighing them down.”

“Well, what of it?” said Johnathan.  He tried to sound as disinterested as possible, and yet he found himself sitting down to listen to her all the same. “It’s all failed now, anyway.”

She replied crisply: “I believe it’s not about ‘success’ or ‘failure’–those are things that only apply in a contest with a clearly defined end. The beauty of creating something new is that it is a risk. You do not know how it will turn out–but there is courage in trying.”

“That is what really matters, you see,’ she continued. “When anything–a life, a country, anything–begins, there is no guarantee of ‘success’. And yet, if no one were ever willing to run that risk…”

She trailed off, and Johnathan now found himself mesmerized by her speech. He stared at her for a few moments. Her brown eyes had a strange calming effect upon him, and he felt like he was becoming hypnotized as he studied her dark, angular face.

“But what’s the use of any of it now?” he asked, forcing himself back to reality. “There’s nothing new here–it’s old and rotten and falling apart!”

Columbia closed her eyes for a moment and smiled patiently, as though she had expected this from him.  She opened her eyes, looked directly into his, and said: “And don’t you think that in the past, others have felt just as frustrated and lost as you do now?”

“Yes,” he admitted, after a pause.

“And what did they do?”

“They… created something new.” he answered quietly.

“That’s right,” she said with a satisfied nod. “They faced their challenges, assessed them, and overcame them through courage and ingenuity. That is America.”

The two of them sat in silence after that.  Columbia leaned back in her chair and glanced around the room with an expression of mild interest. Johnathan simply stared at her, the strange feeling of hypnosis growing stronger all the time.

A loud bang from outside jolted him to his feet.  For an instant, he thought it was a gunshot, but when he rushed to the window, he saw glittering white sparks in the air and realized it was a firework display.

“Look at that,” he said with a smile, as more bright showers of light exploded in the darkness overhead. “Columbia, come and see–”

He turned to beckon her to the window, but she was gone.  The chair was empty. Johnathan looked around in confusion. He ran back through the kitchen and out the front door on to the porch, looking around for her as he went.

She was nowhere to be seen. Johnathan stood on the porch in a daze, listening to the crackle of the pyrotechnic display building to its climax.

He looked around and caught sight of the empty metal bracket beside the door. The flag and pole, he realized, were still under his arm. He hurriedly unfurled the flag and restored it to its place.

THE END