Some people are naturally funny. I’m not, but I want to add just a touch of humor to my books, to make them sparkle. And witty characters are more fun to read than dull ones. What is a poor, dull author to do?
Read books on the subject, of course.
I’ve been working my way through The Deer on a Bicycle, by Patrick McManus, who is one of my favorite authors. I’m very glad that he decided to write a guide for other people who want to imitate his style. It’s not a perfect book, of course; some of the information is outdated, and it’s mostly geared toward writers of magazine articles.
But I’ve picked up a couple of useful tips for writing humor, and I’ll share them here (and possibly add a couple of my own):
-Don’t write about incidents that were funny at the time. It seems illogical- if you thought it was funny, then surely your readers will also laugh, right?- but the idea is that, because you already think it was funny, you’ll have trouble conveying that to your audience. Your already-cemented view of the incident might lead you to write less clearly, or edit less strictly, because you’re caught up in the memory of the incident. You’ll end up saying, “Well, you had to be there,” which is true; most funny incidents are only funny because you know the context of them, or some tiny detail tickled your funny bone at exactly the right moment, which is nigh impossible to convey in writing.
-Instead, write about disasters. There is a line, here; making fun of a dead or dying person appeals to a very small audience. But some of McManus’s best humor comes through when he’s talking about freezing his buns off in an ice-fishing shack, or crawling through half a mile of sagebrush only to shoot at and miss the biggest antelope he’s ever seen. Your audience will sympathize more with a character who has lots of misadventures.
-Similarly, people like to read about underdogs and imperfect people. They also like to laugh at them, to an extent. The slightly clumsy everyman who slips on a banana peel is funnier than the suit-wearing millionaire who does the same thing. But they’re both funnier than having the poor crippled homeless guy take a pratfall. Audiences like to read about heroes who are as good as them, or slightly better, but the comic relief comes from a character who is slightly less competent than average (and some readers like to have a slight sense of superiority, even if they’re feeling superior to a fictional character).
-Obliviousness is a great trait in a comic character. Nobody likes a whiner, and if your character goes around blissfully ignorant of the chaos in his wake, you can draw out a joke for multiple scenes or possibly the entire book. Just make sure your character pops right back up after the anvil falls on his head; a large part of humor is knowing that, even if the character gets hurt, his injuries aren’t permanent.
-Pain itself isn’t funny, but the character’s reaction to it can be. If a character drops a rock on his toe and bursts into tears, that’s not funny. If he jumps eight feet in the air, seizes his throbbing toe in his hands and hops around on one leg, swearing enough to turn the air blue and defoliate all the nearby vegetation, that might provoke a chuckle from the reader.
-A deadpan ‘voice’ is usually funnier than a ‘funny’ voice. If the tone of your writing is has a constant under lay of, ‘laugh, damnit; this is funny,’ your reader will notice, and that kills the moment. (I have a lot of trouble with this)
-Misdirection and surprise can be very useful. Start a sentence headed in one direction then- squirrel! And it’s usually funnier if the bomb goes off when Yosemite Sam counts to two instead of three, because audiences are expecting him to get to three.
-Less is more. Humor takes a light touch, and just like all stories, some of your audience will love it, and some will hate it. Your best bet is to have a bunch of beta readers who will tell you when the joke has gone on too long, or fallen flat.
And speaking of flat, that’s what I feel like, so, talk among yourselves. What are some funny books you’ve read (or written)? Do you set out to write humor, or does it show up unannounced (the best kind, IMO)?
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