Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Writing Humor in Fiction

Last month at When Words Collide in Calgary, Canada, one of the panels I was on was Humor in Fiction. It is a great topic. Here are a few of my thoughts on it.

I love to smile, chuckle or laugh out loud when I am reading a story or writing it. When done well, humor in fiction is perfection. It is an incredible writing tool and essential to me as a reader and writer. 

Most people in the world respond positively to laughter. It is fun to laugh, it feels good. It brings joy and release. Humor also lightens us up. That’s a good thing. We do too good a job of winding ourselves up to the point of snapping, breaking or erupting. Booo. Humor diffuses our self-sabotage and grounds us. Humor has a way of putting life in perspective and laughter is called the best medicine for a reason. Next time you feel like crap, laugh. Find something that makes you laugh in that happy, silly, SO FUNNY way. And then stop and take the time to enjoy it. 

Now let’s talk about how to use humor in your writing, how to use humor as a writing tool. I like to entertain readers not only with my story, but with my characters, too. It is important to me that my characters are fun, interesting, someone I would want to have a beer or coffee with or be stuck in an elevator with, like what Sarah Duncan wrote about in her blog*. Writing humor into your characters can give them depth and make them more real, more believable. Who do you like to hang out with? People who are fun and make you laugh? Write characters like that. Even if they are tasked with saving the world with a toothpick or have had so much trauma you can’t imagine what they would laugh about, find something. Give your characters a sense of humor. Your reader will be attracted to them just like we are to people with a sense of humor in real life.

I include humor in emotionally- or action-charged scenes. This works for me as a writer and my readers in a few ways. It changes emotional gears for the reader, which is entertaining, but also creates an dynamic emotional roller coaster for when the other shoe falls. It gives readers a temporary respite from the adrenaline of the scene, so the action or conflict can jack them again later. The reader has a place to go emotionally, there is a change. For me, static emotion in a story does not hold my interest. I want the roller coaster. I want an emotionally dynamic story. Humor heightens the highs that enhance the lows, making them feel even lower. I want my readers to be emotionally exhausted and satisfied after reading my books because they have felt what my characters went through. 

Humor should enhance your story, not run roughshod over it. Following are a few flags to note:

Be aware of what is considered appropriate and good taste for your story and the humor you include. This will be relative to genre, author and your audience, but just be mindful of the type of humor you include and how you use it. It is a good thing to have humor that grosses out your audience and they love it and want more, but not so good if it inspires your readers to run screaming, appalled, never to buy your work again. Do you use humor to push the line a bit? That can be very cool or leave some readers queasy. Who is your audience? Who do you want your audience to be?

There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. There is a saturation point, a threshold of too many zingers where they start to detract from the story and/or they loose there punch. Remember that there is always that perfect word? Same goes for humor. Having beta readers can help identify when you have too much, or not enough. 

Readers are smart. Write authentically. What do you think is funny? Write that. It will come out sounding real and authentic because it is. Yes, people have different senses of humor, but don’t get stuck on that. If you think it is funny there will be others who do, too. 

Remember, stay light. Laugh. And go write.

*The Lift Test, May 27, 2010, Sarah Duncan’s Blog 


  1. I had to read your blog, just because of this part of your Twitter byline: :...characters you want to have a beer with and usually a helicopter."

    You're so right about where humor fits into a story. I love the emotion, but it's just normal (for most people) to release some tension with laughter.

  2. I used to do remote field work and helicopters was the only way to get in. I LOVE helicopters... and kicking back with a beer with good people or characters . Glad that resonated with you, too!

    You got it, releasing tension with laughter! Thanks for the comment and Happy Writing!