Alma T. C. Boykin
Whimsy. Noun. 1. A whim or caprice, 2. the quality or state of being whimsical or fanciful. (Mirriam-Webster on Line). It just appeared in English in the 1500s-1600s, and might be related to Scandinavian words meaning to flutter the eyes or come from a term for puns. Either of which makes a whimsical start for the idea.
Whimsy has connotations of playful, light hearted, fun, and sometimes frivolous. Engineering textbooks may be entertaining, but never whimsical. Dorothy L. Sayers was playing with language, as she so often did, when she created the character of Lord Peter Whimsey, who is both whimsical and very serious. Genre fiction is whimsical, especially certain subgenres of mystery, romance, and manga (daily-life stories, the cat massage therapist manga [yes, they exist. Yes, they are whimsical. Yes, the massage therapists are housecats.]) Modern literature, at least in academic circles and what is considered New York Times best-seller or National Book Award winning literature, seems above whimsy, at least the samples that I’ve read. It is Serious Writing about Serious Topics.
Readers want whimsy, although many readers prefer whimsy mixed in with more serious moments. Not all readers, and especially the romance super-readers seem to devour lighter, more whimsical stories only lightly touched with shadow. Think The Importance of Being Earnest but with meet-cute and more kissing. It’s not my cup of tea, but if you have the lightness of touch to carry it off well, then bravo, brava, and congratulations. Too much shadow becomes grim-dark, which can be appropriate but edges into anti-human goo if a writer isn’t careful. Even horror has to have a hint of positive in the resolution. And humor and perhaps touches of whimsy.
I’m trying to write some fairy tales that are light, fun, and sweet. It is not easy, in part because I grew up with the darker, somber types of story – unexpurgated Grimm, the Coloured Fairy Books, which even though they were softened a bit for Victorian sensibilities still have a lot of unhappiness and “the world really is not always a nice place, especially if you break the rules or don’t pay attention. Or just have bad fortune.” Whimsy turns dark in my hands if I’m not very careful. It is much easier to add it in small bits.
In the Familiars books, the Familiars themselves and family life provided ways to lighten the mood. Familiars flip from grim and deadly serious to “What the huh?” humor at the drop of a feather (or shed hair). Silver-bleached fur vs. glamor goth clothing is another place to have fun. There’s also family life, “I want a pet dragon! In pastels!” culture clashes between generations, “What meat is this?” “I don’t know, dear, I though you bought it?” Not quite light and fluttering, but lifting the mood and very real even in urban fantasy.
In other series, animals help. Anyone who has worked with animals knows that at some point, they are going to ruin your dignity. Ivan the Purrable, who kept hacking cell phones to change orders with internet pet-supply places and trying to erase answering-machine messages from the v-e-t’s office. Snowey the Mule, who was a most mulish mule and who outsmarted his owner far too often for her comfort. Let the animals be themselves in their own wonderful way, and you can get whimsy and fun without too heavy a hand and that fits the story.
What about the dear, wonderful neighbor who grows nothing but pink and pastel-yellow flowers that keep straying into the hero’s yard? The coffee machine (or copier) at work that gives everyone fits in ever new and creative ways. Sam Vimes hurrying home to read the same book about a cow to his son every night.
I think of whimsy as the eyelet on a petticoat, the pastel accent on a dark pattern calico, the duck-feather bow tie worn by an otherwise sober and proper business man. Light, frothy perhaps, not necessary for life but delightful even so.
Not all genres need whimsy, but I get the sense from my reading that many would benefit from a little less Serious Writing and more lighter touches.
A nice dosing of whimsy and humor can also pace a story very well.
Servants of War is in an extremely dark world, but the kitten sequence is just so completely out of left field that it is a great payoff for the tension, while also being something completely different.
And sometimes it’s fun to see the different sides of characters that can come out when they aren’t dealing with the Armageddon of the day.
That was part of the appeal of Spiderman. Sure he was a super hero, but he also had finals, bills, and needed a day job that actually paid them.
A sour face doesn’t mean you’re serious. I think a lot of the most serious people see the humor in life, and the same applies to writing – maybe another way of putting it is that in novels, pretentious != serious.
It seems to depend on genre, and what is “serious.” I’ve read serious social critiques that used humor, whimsy, and deft touches to make their point. I’ve read what sounded like a fun slice-of-life story that felt like wearing a lead apron because the author had imbibed too much “real literature must be sober, respectable, and unsmiling.”
Too, there’s bitter, sardonic, humor-free laughter and there’s humor and whimsy among serious people *because* they understand the seriousness of the moment.
I have to use humor in a story. I can’t write humor or whimsy easily as themselves alone.
Whimsy is a fine thing. Everyone needs a way to be attentive to the random splashes of life that evade all of our dead-serious planning.
In one of my WIPs, the hero brings home a large young stray dog. During the first evening’s dinner, the butler interrupts his meal to explain that someone wants a word with him, as the inconsolable housed-temporarily-in-a-stall-after-a-large-meal rescuee accuses him of abandonment and false promises to the deafened ears of the entire urban neighborhood.
There’s nothing like an animal (yes, it has a mind and its wishes are often orthogonal to yours) to introduce random humor.
Shenti the seamstress/fashion designer/spy in my Star Master books kind of filled that role for me: she did serious stuff as well, but a lot of her function was just snarking at people, and one of the last things I edited in Book 2 on New Year’s Eve, was cutting out a couple of her lines that no longer worked with the brutal plot changes Book 2 had gone through.
New project starts off with a Grand Sophy type (not that infallible but kind of that vibe), a Miles Gloriosus, and a posh, sarcastic guy whose lines beg to be read in the kind of Received Pronunciation that hasn’t been in fashion for sixty or seventy years now. We’ll see how whimsical sourpuss me can make them.
I think someone has watched one of the more recent episodes of Tale Foundry. (grin)
The hunting of snarks is Serious Business, likely to lead to the hunter’s demise. Proceed with a light touch, or a heavy hand.
But if your vision isn’t fanciful, your fiction is unlikely to catch the reader’s fancy.
One notes that whimsical moments help with tragedy, motivation, and stakes.
If you have your hero have whimsical moments with whatever relative you have abducted, it will mean that the character’s love is real for the reader, and so therefore is the loss.
I noticed I did something like this in a fantasy novel I wrote a long time ago. The whimsy in several of scenes of two characters spending time together really made the one character’s end that much more tragic. I did it completely by accident, too.
I always have a little humor and whimsy in my writing, if not down right parody at times. It is definitely one of the tools of pacing in my opinion.
Excellent point, and humor ‘can’ definitely lighten the story and/or provide a break in the tension…