Traditional Publishing

Want to Strike a Funny Bone?

By G. Miki Hayden
Instructor at Writer's Digest University online and private writing coach – Thursday June 4, 2020

My editing client’s (erotic romantic) writing made me genuinely LOL—laugh out loud— which naturally caused me to muse on humor in fiction. The world is going to hell in a handbasket (they lowered workers in handbaskets to set off dynamite while building the railways). But let’s not go all gloomy Gus over our trials and tribulations. Laugh, clown, laugh. Did I mix any metaphors?

Yet actually, thinking about this, I realize we do need to incorporate the deeper emotional moments in our fiction to contrast with spots where we insert funny moments. The dark drama that brings us close to tears or past that threshold can stimulate the laughter which comes soon after. The humor is unexpected and thus generally better able to elicit the response to something funny.

Where does the humor come from, though? It can come from the situation itself—some of the “jokes” in my client’s story were tricks played on the habitual criminal trying to do bad and being thwarted—while in other spots the comedy derived directly from the romantic heroine’s self-deprecating thoughts. She believed her love affair was never intended to end well and saw herself as a kind of a luckless buffoon. Well, she wasn’t, though, all considered—she was the protagonist!

So, at the core of the funny book is really some depth, or the humor becomes grating, and the novel will be judged as superficial. In the novel I was editing, for instance, we see that the main female character actually has a self-image problem. Her romance can end well, readers believe—and we hope so, and yet we appreciate her humor and her lack of self-confidence. More importantly, too, the hero likes those goofball personality traits.

But keep in mind. this young woman, the heroine, doesn’t completely cover over her sincerity or dreams for happiness—she just uses the kidding around as a coping mechanism. She cares so much, that she has protected herself all her life and wards off disappointment, the fear of being crushed, by the sarcasm in her own mind. Yet her real feelings do come through forcefully.

So, humor will often be rooted in the protagonists’ tendencies to make light of themselves and of their situations—“of course, I would wear the wrong thing to the party—that’s my way.” Still, the characters actually feel a strong emotion of humiliation or fear they won’t be respected or liked, and we readers can plainly see the underlying feeling.

We might call this type of humor black humor, in fact. And in our own lives, we will find ourselves joking about our negative experiences at times in just this way. Laughing at our destinies may be a half-step above tears. We can honor this human tendency in our heroines and heroes by showing that same type of response in them.

Humans crave to feel emotions, and that’s why readers pick up our books. They want to identify with the personalities—sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. A laugh will relieve the stress of ordinary life, but it will also come close to the truth of our very real frailties. And a major portion of the payoff in enjoying a novel is becoming emotionally involved with the characters. Sometimes this means they will be above us with skills in life that we only wish we had; sometimes, they will be very much the way we readers are—people who stumble around in dealing with the events we ourselves may have to confront.

If we want to present humor of the realistic sort, then we might want to torment our characters, in whatever genre, to elicit the humor as they shake with anxiety, lose their cool and mouth off, crumble in embarrassment, and so on. All such emotions and reactions will fit into romance, mystery, science fiction, teen lit, general fiction, or what have you.

Issues for laughter often come about from conflict of some sort, which is the basic food of any type of fiction. I teach all genres, and conflict is pretty much at the heart of the novels people are writing—or should be writing. This is true whether the novel is set in Nazi Germany—even set in a concentration camp—or a thriller focused on the stalking of a homicidal maniac. Humor doesn’t have to be pervasive in a novel, but an occasional joke never hurt a reader, and in an a truly dramatic scene the irony of being funny can even bring tears—doing its job of drilling down into our realities.

While finding a balance between humor and depth can be delicate, we should keep in mind that letting the funny in is a good thing, not an element that doesn’t belong.

Our characters can undergo some genuinely horrible events but peppering in the humor for a protagonist may only make that person much more human. We’re going to worry all the more about a character who can kid around in the middle of a cyclone. 

And speaking of balance, you don’t want to suddenly surprise readers a quarter of the way through the novel with something you think worthy of a giggle. No. If you pop in a chuckle at the start, you send a message to your audience that this book will offer a pratfall or two, some comic relief.

And yes, my client’s story begins with a few amusing signals of what’s to come. His heroine who has overslept is off to work in a jumbled outfit but stops to have a conversation with a pigeon. Just then she spots the man of her (erotic) dreams disembarking from the ferry. If only someone like that could be for her. But of course that could never happen. Her life, after all, isn’t a romance novel. (But it is.)

About the Author

G. Miki Hayden is a short story Edgar winner. She teaches a mystery writing and a thriller writing and other writing classes at Writer's Digest online university. The third edition of her Writing the Mystery is available through Amazon and other good bookshops. She is also the author of The Naked Writer, a comprehensive, easy-to-read style and composition guide for all levels of writers.