Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Can You Tell Me How To Get, How To Get To Humorous Street?

I've mentioned before that I'm currently working on a chick-lit murder mystery novel. It's been a strange process, because I'm really learning a different form--or perhaps, a couple of different forms. I've got to develop a voice for chick-lit, and I've got to work out the basic structure of how to tell a mystery effectively. Both reasonably difficult challenges when tackled for the first time.

So, as normal, I'm trying to work my way into writing this story, and I've written the first chapter a few times--testing out the waters, as it were. I've tried third person and first person, starting at point A and at point B. I've found I l=really like the use of the first person for developng the voice of the character, which is great for building the narrative. But when I had my first readers look at that version, I heard one thing back--"She's mean."


I thought she was snarky, a little sarcastic, funny in an audience-insider sort of way, rubbing elbows with the reader. "Isn't she funny?" I asked.

"No, not at all," I heard back. "She's just... mean. Angry."

Okay, well, she did just go through a break-up of a five-year long relationship, but still, she can't come across as mean. She needs to be funny, or the character won't work.

"Not funny?" I double-checked.

"Still no."


And I thought, and I thought, a long long deep think... and slowly I came to a terrifying realization:

I have no idea how to write funny.

Oh, you've got to be kidding. I've written funny before, but it seems that somewhere along the way I lost touch with the funny. Not sure where it went. Maybe Kelly's marauding woodchucks pilfered it.

It's so different from sounding or acting funny, where intonation, volume, accent, physical language, etc. can all be used as cues that something is not to be taken seriously, or that another character's voice is being adopted. Those things just aren't there as words on a page, and so there have to be other ways to cue the reader that there is a shift--without using a two by four and telling them (here's a joke coming up, get ready!).

So, dear readers: How much does your sympathy for a character relate, in a light, fun read, to how funny they are? What are some of your favorite funny characters, or scenes? And what makes them funny to you? How does reading something funny differ from hearing it, or seeing it?


Tim Susman said...

Funny is flippin' hard.

One thing that might help is something we talked about in a screenwriting class. I forget the specific example, but anyway, here goes: strong characters are funny when they put themselves down; weak characters are funny when they put others down. If your character is a strong, assertive woman, and she's making fun of other people, she's a bully. Self-deprecating humor is a good way to make strong characters more likable.

Some great funny characters are Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, in different ways. Bertie wants to be the one in charge (though deep down he knows he isn't), so there's great humor in him putting down Jeeves and his peers, because we know that Jeeves is the one he relies on to get through life--and that that point will inevitably be driven home by the end of the story. Jeeves' humor mostly comes from deflating Bertie or his friends, and is entertaining because (1) Bertie is such an ass, and (2) Jeeves is technically his servant.

Hope that helps!

Kelly McCullough said...

Too much to cover in comments. I'll respond later in a front page post.

Anonymous said...

Hey Tim, some of the conversations that I've been having around this have brought up that point generally. She is a strong character, so it'll have to be self-deprecation. The trick is to get it right so she doesn't sound like she feels worthless.

P.G. Wodehouse is a master, and you are right to think of him when I ask for funny!

Douglas Hulick said...

It depends on the kind of humor you want: situational, observational, ironic, active, passive, and so on. Just saying "I want my writing to be funny" doesn't get you there - you need to decide Funny How.

Most of the humor I include in my writing is either situational or observational. By that I mean I either set up the situation so that it has a funny outcome, or I write it in such a way that either a character, or the reader, can *see* and possibly comment on the humor in the situation. I also tend to work a lot of my humor in through dialog, although I do do the occasional double-take or set up gag. (And all this in a book that is more serious than humorous.)

Think about *how* you want to work humor into the narrative. Is the main character going to be funny? If so, how? Will that require someone to interact with besides the reader? Or will it be the situations themselves that are humorous? Blatantly (like, say, M*A*S*H) or more subtly situational (James Thurber)? How much set up will the gag require? Will the character even see the humor? Will you lay foundations early for some of the pay offs, or are they going to be one shots that the reader can enjoys but ultimately forget?...

...And so on and so forth.

Also, don't forget tone helps set things up for humor as well. Since you are doing lighter-fare work (in that the tone and mood are going to be up-beat), this will lend itself to the humor. But don't confuse humor with tone or character. You need the latter two to be strong before you worry about lacing the narrative with yucks. Look at how you want Lacey(?) to come off. You may find you need to worry less about being "funny" than you do about the character coming through as you want the reader to see her.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Funny has a lot to do with not meeting expectations. Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are funny when they decide they'd rather have some peace than deal with their clients. Wodehouse is funny for several reasons, but partly because the relationship isn't what we expect and partly because what's being said isn't really what's going on. Hitchhiker's Guide was funny because everyone was taking science fiction so seriously at the time and because it sets you up by taking itself seriously a certain amount of the time. Good Omens? What's funnier than a light look at the apocalypse?

What I can't tell you is how to balance meeting your readers' needs and not meeting their expectations.

Anonymous said...

The comment about strong characters vs. weak characters needing different targets rings true to me.

I had this problem in a screenplay that started as a short story. In the story the protagonist had a first person voice that was snarky - and I later realized, too self-absorbed without a sense of humor about her own foibles.

Everyone told me she was mean or they didn't like her, even though her situation and storyline should have made her sympathetic - she was an underdog fighting much larger forces. But I made the mistake of starting off with her seeming to be really 'strong' and independent. The 'voice' came off as arrogant instead of as an obvious defense.

In the screenplay, I started off with her stuck in an obviously oppressive situation, trying to free herself. And people found her sympathetic, and the snarky humor worked. I also found her voice changed - she became more aware of the irony inherent in her defensiveness- because I was no longer focused on developing her voice and backstory in this redrafting, but on her responses to the conflict/ situation. Set-ups are hard...