Thursday, June 07, 2007

Dying is Easy, Comedy is Hard

One thing that all of us seem to agree on is that humor is difficult partly because it’s so subjective. As Eleanor says, what’s funny for me might not be funny for you.

One thing that Sean and I talked about when we first discussed this issue is that I’ve come to believe that one thing a writer needs to convey in order to successfully pull off interpersonal humor (like sarcasm, as opposed to say, slapstick,) is information. Interpersonal humor works when we _know_ the quirks and foibles of the people involved. They need to be people we can laugh with (or at). To do this well, in my opinion, you have to be superb at characterization.

I suggest then that one of the best places to start is by establishing your main character as someone the reader can trust to not mock people out of meanness, but out of a kind of appreciation or even love. Interpersonal humor is difficult because I think that there _is_ a fine line between laughing with someone and at them. An author needs to approach that division very carefully. I agree with Kelly that one of the best ways to deal with the issue of “meanness” is to remember that it is far more sympathetic for a main character to poke fun at themselves than at others. So, if you can establish your view point character who happily laughs at their own stupidity, I think a reader is then better able to accept when s/he pokes fun at other people’s idiocy, because you know s/he’s someone who is, at the very least, willing to laugh at her/himself for the same “mistakes.”

It establishes a baseline kindness. To be successfully snarky or sarcastic in text (and perhaps in life), I believe you ultimately have to be decent and nice. I think this especially important if you chose to introduce characters who are larger than life. I’m thinking of the character grandma in the Stephanie Plum series (by Janet Evonivich, ONE FOR THE MONEY). For me, those kinds of crazy, almost unrealistically hilarious characters work because Stephanie Plum loves them. She observes their insanity through the filter of familial bonds based in love. Even her father, who could read as dark and cantankerous reads as sweet and lovable because Stephanie’s word choice and description of him make her own appreciation for him obvious to the reader.

Just my two cents. Arguments? Agreements?


Douglas Hulick said...

I would just add that you can get a lot of mileage, humor-wise, by having a character focus their sarcasm on situations, and not just people. We seem to be assuming that the barbs must be directed at someone, whereas they can also be directed at something.

Irony, sly observation, commentary, and so on all work when aimed at things and events as well as people. Plus, things can't get their feelings hurt. So, if you want to establish a wryly wicked tongue in your character's head, you might want to consider picking some non-sentient targets to establish this facet of their personality. Or, use events so your character can make sly comments on their own short-comings.

I agree you still need to maintain sympathy with the character, otherwise the transition will fall flat (along with a lot of other things). But there is no reason you can't build the expectation of humor in the reader by selecting a couple non-sentient targets early on.

Kelly McCullough said...

I mostly agree with this, and Doug makes some great points.

The one point I have a quibble with is the insistence that you have to be superb at characterization to make interpersonal humor work.

There is no question that character is one of my weakest points (though I do work damn hard to make up for it--and mostly I thin I succeed). At the same time, some of my most praised and best sold work is built heavily on top of interpersonal humor.

This may have to do with the type of interpersonal humor--snark is not wit is not sarcasm is not insult and on all YMMV--but its a data point in pretty direct contrast to that particular argument.

Anonymous said...

Yeah - I just finished a book on writing romantic comedy films and this is basically what it said about humor. That a funny hero or heroine should be 'big' enough to admit they have flaws and have a sense of humor about it - the flavor the book conveyed was 'generosity of character' or 'heart.' Like ya said.

It also discussed the info piece - the usual comedy-writing adage that humor works in 'threes' - the info you need to convey is 1.) the setup, 2.) the repeat that lets you know the setup is the 'rule,' and 3.) the payoff- the exception that breaks the rule and is funny because it defies the expectation.

Sometimes the info is 'provided' by the reader - Cranky grandma takes advantage of the setup being the stereotypical expectation of a gentle, loving grandma, and #2 gets wrapped up in that - a stereotype is like a 'rule' anyway.