by Janeen Ippolito
Humor. Some people say you have it or you don’t. And if you don’t, trying to acquire humor is like trying to eat Jell-O with a fork. On a camel. In the rain. Wearing a fez, because fezzes are cool.
You get the picture.
I take a different approach. And not just because camels spit and I don’t have a fez.
Humor is just too valuable a tool to fiction writers, especially speculative fiction writers, to be shoved off in a corner with abstract symbolism and the Oxford comma.
People like to laugh. Readers like to laugh. Humor is another tool in your writer’s kit to keep readers engaged. This is especially true if you write darker stories with heavy themes. While there are times to keep the mood serious, humor is often a coping mechanism for people in dire situations. Even a few quips or a moment of situational irony can add a necessary bit of levity that keeps a scenario from being so intense that the reader can’t bear to continue.
Humor is also a great way to deal with romance. If you want two characters to meet and end up together, without turning your story into a mush-fest, banter and contrasting temperaments are the way to go. Just look at Shakespeare’s comedies, especially The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing. Good modern-day examples are Castle and Beckett from the TV show Castle and the romantic relationships in Joss Whedon’s Firefly.
Now, on to the tips! I’m not going to give you hard and fast rules. Humor doesn’t work like that. What works in one specific situation won’t have a prayer in another. However, here’s a list of things that you can do to increase your overall humor quotient and maybe even sneak some into your writing!
DO Read or Watch Funny Things
Read humor books–spoofs, satires, and books written by humorists. Watch comedy TV shows and movies. Watch actual comedians–both good and bad–to get a sense of what works and what really doesn’t. Some people shy away from the humor genre because of risque content, but there is clean comedy out there. Try older classics like The Marx Brothers, Abbot & Costello, or Lucille Ball. Search YouTube for comedians like Tim Hawkins. Try reading some of the online articles of Dave Barry or John Acuff. Just be aware that humorists are the court jesters of the world, pushing boundaries to make the audience think as well as laugh. If you’re offended, it might not always be their fault. This leads me to my second point.
DO Laugh at Yourself
Part of humor is about looking at life and realizing how ridiculous it is. One way someone can do this is by constantly pointing out the flaws in others and the system. However, this is a form of aggressive humor and often isn’t that much fun. The most successful humor writers make fun of themselves, which shows humility and grace.
Fortunately, as fiction writers, we can pass on the joy of our own mistakes–to our characters! This means the next time something really weird or crazy happens to you? Write it down. Any bit of funny dialog your kid says? Write it down. Anything you perennially forget? Write it down. Have a handy journal of all of these moments (or a stack of napkins and receipts, if you’re like me) and then pull them out as you’re writing and need a funny moment.
Example: I lock myself out. Of everything. You name the location, and I’m pretty sure I’ve managed to be stuck on the wrong side. I’ve gotten locked out on patios and locked out of apartments (I had to call the police once and break the door down . . . did I mention it wasn’t my apartment?), I was even locked in a giant freezer that didn’t HAVE a lock. So of course, somewhere in my stories? There’s a character who has issues with locks, or a situation where the locks are evil. I understand the humor, I’m familiar with the situation, and I figure if I had to suffer through it, the character can too.
DO Go Random (and then go even MORE random)
Everyone can think of normal situations to laugh at. However, we’re speculative fiction writers. Our humor can be out on a limb just as much as our characters, plot, and everything else. Don’t have the lights go out in your house because of a maintenance failure or a dark, evil bad guy. Have the lights go out because a corgi chewed on the wiring and then peed on it, because your character’s irresponsible brother forgot to take the dog outside.
That’s a scenario from my book, The Eimiror Accords: Reckoning. Why did I write it? First, I’m laughing at myself. I’ve had dogs and know what they do if you ignore their pleas to go outside. Second, I needed the lights to go out for that scene. Third, my main character is coming in from a really hard day at work, so I wanted a humorous tweak to lighten the mood–if not for her, then at least for the reader. Now, can dog urine really short out the wiring in a house? Probably not. But it’s speculative fiction, and it’s more random if that happens.
DO Use Contrasting Elements
One easy way to add humor is through contrasts. This is often seen in a “odd couple” pairing. One character is structured, the other is disorganized. One character is from the streets, and the other is from the upper class. One character is American, and the other is Japanese. These contrasts will add layers of conflict as the two characters worldviews clash–which can lead to really funny material.
Another contrast is the character versus their situation. One example I love is in Disney’s Tarzan, where an elephant is hyper-concerned with the cleanliness of the water. Of course, the contrast is that a wild animal would never care that there’s bacteria in the water. Another example is in the movie The Pacifier, where Vin Diesel plays a hard-edged Navy seal who has to protect a family, including singing them bedtime songs and even directing the school musical.
Contrasts can also work with magic and superpowers. In my fantasy/fairy tale series, I have a character who can fly–but wait! She happens to be terrified of heights. This both allows for a certain kind of humor, and also introduces obstacles for the character to overcome and grow.
DO Edit and Rewrite Humor Scenes
Writing humor is like any other part of writing. The only way to get better is to practice. Draft and then edit. Have a friend read it, and then edit it again. Check your audience and understand what they think is funny, because a joke might work for your friend, but not for your audience, or vice versa. Go back to the humor segment. Check the wording. Edit again. While some people might have an innate talent for humor, the only way to really improve is to just put yourself out there and try. And probably fail, but try again. And maybe offend somebody and then decide whether you need to drop the joke, or if they need to lighten up. After that? Try again.
Because we are writers and this is what we do.
When all else fails? Put aside your work and watch or read something funny. If anyone calls you out on not writing? Tell them that the Tim Hawkins videos are research. Totally.
Here are some good links to the technical sides of humor:
Janeen Ippolito is an English teacher by day, a sword-fighter by night and a writer by heart. She has a B.A. in Cross-Cultural Studies, Writing, and ESL and has a passion for using humor and cultures in speculative fiction. She is the author of Culture-Building From the Inside Out, an eBook how to write cultures in speculative fiction, and the upcoming Character-Building From the Inside Out, which features quick tips on solving common character issues. In her spare time she makes brownie batter, reads, and grades papers while watching speculative television shows. She loves connecting with, supporting, and promoting fantastical fiction on her blog, so feel free to visit and get in touch!