Writer’s Craft #129 Best Humour Arises from Character

Lynda Williams
Lynda Williams, Author of Okal Rel Saga

Your host, Lynda Williams, is the author of the Okal Rel Saga (Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing) and editor of the Okal Rel Legacies series (Absolute Xpress). She also works as Learning Technology Manager for Simon Fraser University and teaches an introductory web development course at BCIT. For a list of Okal Rel titles see: Lynda Williams on Amazon.com.

The best humour is based on knowing the character and watching that particular character respond to a bizarre challenge – to paraphrase well-loved comedian Betty White, in her Labour Day Special, Betty White’s Funniest of the Funniest.

Watching her chosen vignettes proved the hypothesis. For example, Mary’s character from the Mary Tyler Moore Show struggling not to laugh at a funeral is funny because she’s Mary, the proper, respectful one. It wouldn’t work if Mary was just anyone.

Okal Rel humour of the same sort sprang to mind, immediately.

A disoriented Ranar awarding a failing grade to what he takes to be a simulation of a Gelack bedroom, in Part 1: The Courtesan Prince, is funny because Rire’s Gelack expert hasn’t yet remembered he is actually on Gelion. And because he is usually so disgustingly correct in all his suppositions.

Eler winding up Ranar’s beleaguered substitute, Josune, in Part 5: Far Arena, is funny because we know Eler is far from the intellectual lightweight Josune presumes him to be. And we just know Eler is going to out-anthropology the anthropologist.

Ilse holding out the urine sampling kit, to Horth, in Part 7: Healer’s Sword, is giggle-worthy because he’s Horth Nersal. And she’s Ilse. He doesn’t expect his own rules about empowering medics to apply to him. And, despite a bad case of the hots for him, she’s a reputation-conscious Demish woman.

The challenge, in this age of attention-bombardment-fatigue-syndrome (ABFS), is coaxing readers into the story far enough to get the best jokes. But that’s another story.

Share an example from your own work when the humour relies on knowing the unique traits of the characters.

2 thoughts on “Writer’s Craft #129 Best Humour Arises from Character

  1. Humor is difficult. So much of it is pure instinct. You can try to analyze it, but how often have you burst into laughter at something only to have the person next to you glance over, puzzled. As you wipe your eyes, you confess, “I don’t know why it’s funny; it just is.”

    But there do seem to be generalizations one can make, and this is one of them. Some characters are inherently funny. Rowan Atkinson can just say the word “bubbly” and crack up an audience. It’s his persona. Other times it is not the character per se, but, as you describe, the character colliding with a particular situation. It’s the chemistry; the correct mixture is volatile.

    When I write humor, I don’t think in terms of formula. I suspect few successful humorists do. One thinks up a situation for one’s characters, chuckles, and murmurs, “Oh, that’s good!” and begins tapping gleefully at the keys. It just happens, like so much creative stuff. But when I look at something like my very proper and no-nonsense Ms. Mare dealing with the absurd household of Archimedes Nesselrode (shameless plug for book coming out in November from Double Dragon, charming, delightful, you’ll love it) it’s quite obviously the tried and true formula of serious person dealing with nonsense. It’s been done a million times, but done well, it dependably works. Monty Python, nudge nudge, wink wink.

  2. I agree about the “oh, that’s good!” brainwave; you don’t think about why the situation is funny when you write it. But looking back on my humor after the fact, it definitely runs deeper when you know the characters. An example from my fantasy series: my child hero, Lexi – who captains a crew of older adventurers – can get quite violent towards people who offend her. Knowing what offends her gives the reader that moment of anticipation (“that person shouldn’t have said that!”) A superficial goddess once told Lexi that she “would never grow up to be a pretty little bride”. If you know Lexi at all, you know she doesn’t care that the goddess implied she was ugly; the ignorant deity failed to grasp that captains on important missions don’t aspire to be “little brides”.

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