If every book was dark and morbid, we wouldn’t read them. Stories aren’t meant to be all weight and no relief. Many people read to “escape” or to “relax” or to “expand their mind”. You can and should write heavy things, even dark things, to make the story real and meaningful. Do it.
But we can’t just stop there.
Your reader will begin to feel oppressed, put down, stamped on. Don’t do that to your readers. One of the best solutions to this is to inject something everyone can identify with and smile at: humor. There are other ways, of course (showing innocence, happy endings, romance, etc.), but humor is rarely a poor choice.
However, humor can be and often is written poorly. How can we write it well?
I can’t claim to be an expert in this area, because I’m not a standup comedian. All I can do is suggest that I’ve written a futuristic comedy/satire and hope it counts for something with my long list of books that I’ve read with excellent or poor humor.
For every good piece of humor in writing, there’s ten that are awful or poorly written. You find them everywhere, these mistakes and flops. I’m not going to spend a long time on any particular one, but I’d like to point out a few:
-The comic relief character. I’ve talked extensively about the Ally character, the sidekick, and I’ve mentioned this kind of character before. Basically, this is the character you find in your average blockbuster who’s just there to be funny. They have a wit faster than the speed of light and are either super intelligent or super not.
What’s wrong with these characters? They’re useless. You can take them out of the story without losing anything important. Even if they did something vital, it was on accident and you can easily have another character do it. It’s better to just… not.
-Puns, nine times out of ten. I realize there are times and places for puns in writing. Real people make puns, and so there are times where puns are realistic and work. At the same time, however, puns are generally regarded as “dumb” jokes. They’re the ones that make people roll their eyes. If you’re writing with the intent of making your readers go “this character is a dork”, and it fits your genre and setting, then you can get away with it. At the same time, however, puns are so very difficult to pull off correctly it’s best just to avoid them.
-Extended jokes. If you want to make a running point, check out ideas like irony and symbolism. I’m not necessarily against having a joke that takes several chapters to fully develop, but I am against repeating the same joke over and over as if it’s still amusing. It might be funny in your group of friends because you’re all there ready to feed of each other’s amusement. When you repeat something over and over in a story, where the reader is all by themselves, it’s not that funny. The first time or two, yeah. The clever times, sure. But over and over? Maybe not.
-Inside jokes. I’m not so much against these as I am just giving you a warning: if you put an inside joke into a novel, no one but you and those already in the know are going to see it and understand it and find it funny. If you’re subtle, you’ll be all right because your other readers won’t even notice. When you’re blunt, your readers will feel something off, but nothing else. They won’t get it. Inside jokes can be amusing when you aim just for specific people… not when you try so hard to make everyone understand that no one does.
Now that I’ve told you the types of humor that tend to not work in fiction (those things are more my opinions and the thought processes I’ve put behind them than actual rules, mind you), I’d like to propose a few ways in which you can insert good humor into your novels.
-Keep it simple. Yes, your readers are smart (as I’m fond of telling you), but they also don’t like to work. They’re lazy like you are. Your jokes should be simple enough for most people to understand. If you want a complex joke, be prepared for it to be passed over unconsciously by a lot of people. K?
-Introduce it early. Don’t start your story with complete solemnity and then halfway through start throwing in humor. Humor is like a main character: if you’re going to use them, you have to introduce them in the beginning.
-Follow your genre. I’m all for testing new things, and I’m certainly for weird mashups of various genres and styles, but there’s still strength in following the rules. If you’ve not written a lot of humorous writing, it’s always good to follow the rules. You can only break rules well if you know what the rules are. So, as you write humor, consider and remember the time period and setting you’re writing in. Is that specific bit of humor appropriate and realistic? Humor is a social construct, and so changes over time.
-Experiment. Yes, banter between characters is a form of humor. Witty characters can be funny. Entire stories can be written around the comedic relationship between two characters (Merlin and Psych come to mind). At the same time, however, there are many other ways to insert comedy and humor. Situations can create a great deal of humor, character voice and comments in the narrative can bring out amusing juxtapositions, and startlingly strange situations can often provide a light-hearted moment.
Humor is a powerful tool, used right. It’s a way to create emotion – strong emotions – and it can keep your story from plunging into dark morbid places you can’t escape from.