Humor plays multiple roles and has the power to transform stories. Amusing voices stick in readers’ minds, begging to be shared with their friends. Entertaining dialogue makes characters lovable, and well-placed jokes brighten moments of despair.
For writers who want more laughter in their pages, I bring good and bad news. On a positive note, many writers instinctively understand how to add humor to their stories. Unfortunately, humor that appears effortless rarely is effortless.
Despite the endless variety of comedy in today’s literature, however, a large chunk comes from characters. If you weave surprise and contrast into your protagonist’s voice and interactions with others, you can take advantage of this wellspring of humor.
1. Instill Humor into Your Character’s Voice
Point-of-view characters are the lens through which readers see the story world. If they’re witty, the entire book has the potential to be hilarious. Such characters endear readers and contribute a unique flavor to the tale.
Why are they so funny? Don’t reactions differ from reader to reader? Well, yes and no.
Instead of trying to define humor, ask yourself what it’s not. Think of a time a character cracked you up. Did you predict his line? Chances are, you didn’t. If readers guessed all the jokes, they’d be yawning. A character seems funny when he blurts something unexpected. And when his voice contradicts the scene’s tone, it catches readers off guard.
The Profile Match by Jill Williamson is the last book in her Mission League series. Most of the story is told by Spencer Garmond, who owns an incredibly engaging voice. By examining why his voice is memorable, you can find principles to apply to your own narrators.
A Voice that Creates Contrast
The character thinks, speaks, and acts in ways that are contrary to his situation yet stay within the boundaries of his candid personality. For instance, Spencer is sent to infiltrate a creepy cult. During initiation, he must pledge allegiance to a prominent figure in the sect’s doctrine. He doesn’t attempt to hide why he resists:
Here we go again. “Yeah, I can’t do that either,” I said.
“I’m a Christian. I’m not pledging my allegiance to anyone but Jesus. And America.”
Skilled spies conceal their identities, so Spencer shocks readers by revealing his beliefs. His mention of America increases the irony. Since he associates the word “allegiance” with his country, he feels compelled to include it.
Disney’s National Treasure provides a second example. The sidekick Riley tosses out depressing, off-the-wall remarks that the other characters fail to appreciate. Because he’s in opposition to the film’s intensity, he’s funny.
Developing surprise requires a thorough understanding of the character’s demeanor and circumstances. To insert the unexpected, you must first know what is expected. How can a cheerful character lighten a dark situation, and vice versa? If you study the scene and your character’s personality, you’ll dig up the most natural, humorous dialogue.
A Voice that Feels Human
If Spencer threw out snark every time the story grew serious, his voice would become annoying. But he’s more than a sass machine. In the scene above, he’s stating his convictions, not cracking a joke. Though his response seems ridiculous considering the danger, he’s also showing that he won’t abandon his values.
A humorous character should be more than comic relief. He needs dimension. If his only purpose is to generate snickers (or imitate a trend in popular books), he’ll be indistinguishable from the thousands of other comic relief characters that authors were too lazy to flesh out. Because Williamson gave Spencer a soul, his humor is as delightful as it is varied.
Part of making your character unique involves writing him so that he strikes a chord with you—and, by extension, your ideal audience. The Profile Match amuses young adults, but it may not appeal to a college professor who’d rather read a good ol’ biography. Spencer isn’t intended to resonate with everyone.
Just because you prefer a certain style of humor doesn’t mean that others won’t relish it too, though. I’m not like staff members Daeus and Hope, but I enjoy their special brand of funny. Each of us must embrace our individuality.
2. Mix Humor into Character Chemistry
Personality clashes, like the BBC version of Merlin and Arthur, set off rounds of banter. Merlin is a skinny weakling with magical powers, and Arthur is a demanding, arrogant prince with a noble streak. Arthur treats Merlin like an ignorant, inept servant, and Merlin’s sarcastic retorts display little respect for his master. The men are as opposite in personality as they are in status.
Yet they still have similarities. Merlin and Arthur both value and protect human life. However, while Merlin has too much empathy to turn away a broken soul, Arthur has trouble confessing emotions and sharing the sorrows of others. Merlin can resolve problems through magic and tenderness, whereas Arthur is better at leading than consoling. They both care, but they express it differently.
Think about how your characters are distinct. What scenarios does one character thrive in that would frighten the other? How do they uphold the same values? How do their temperaments vary?
Each character needs a niche that doesn’t align with the other’s lifestyle. You could pair up an overly technical scientist and a trigger-happy secret agent, or a less-than-morally-upright salesman and his southern Baptist grandmother. Once you’ve established their quirks, flash fiction and character questionnaires can help you develop their worldviews. The more familiar you are with the characters, the easier you can play them off each other.
A word of caution: when you pit characters against each other for the sake of humor, don’t make one incapable and the other competent. A funny relationship is a sparring match, not a beating. Even if one character doesn’t fire back, is endlessly clumsy, and forgets important details, he still needs to be useful to the story.
Don’t Overdo It
When you’ve been complimented on your use of humor in the past, you might worry that’s the only reason readers like your stories. If you let that insecurity guide how many wisecracks you load into your scenes, you may end up destroying the heart of your story. Trust me, I’ve had experience.
Don’t replace a story’s soul with humor. Instead, craft a charming tale that enhances the meaning beneath the witty exchanges, amusing contrasts, and lively voice.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood. You can hang out with her on her quirky blog and Instagram.