Humor in novels which tackle difficult subjects? That doesn’t seem right. After all, there is nothing funny about death, divorce, crime or other serious topics. Still, the use of subtle humor within emotionally challenging story-lines can create a more satisfying book than lamentation alone. Why? First, humor helps balance out the hard parts of the narrative. A quick laugh or smile gives readers an emotional release. Second, humor is relatable and, done well, can bring fictional characters an additional depth. Finally, the best books, in my opinion, allow readers to feel the whole spectrum of emotions, not just the painful ones.
A good example of a book that incorporates humor into a serious topic is Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. The underlying theme of the book is domestic violence. Notwithstanding this serious issue, Moriaty creates funny characters (the blonde bobs) and funny ideas (the adult book club). Neither of these detract from the seriousness of the main topic; yet, their presence makes the book effortlessly readable.
The hit television series This is Us is a good example of a creative work that allows viewers to feel every emotion. The characters in the series face a gamut of emotional issues: anxiety, obesity, substance abuse, death, and teenage pregnancy. However, in between the circumstances engendered by these tough topics, the television characters laugh and grow and live their lives. In my opinion, it is the full range of emotion viewers experience that makes This is Us a fan favorite.
Convinced? Here are a few tips and strategies for incorporating snippets of humor into your serious fiction:
Use humor like a spice: Too much will overpower your book. All you need are a few shakes here and there.
Find funny in ordinary people: People are funny. Maybe your character lives near a woman who knits sequined scarves for her dog. What if that woman gifts a scarf for your character’s dog? And keeps asking about why the dog is not wearing it! This woman does not have to be a big part of the book but she’ll show your character’s compassion if he has the dog wear the scarf. And the idea of it might just make your readers laugh.
Go for the smile: You do not need your readers to laugh out loud. In the example above, I wouldn’t expect anyone to guffaw. I would expect a smile and a sense of connection. After all, we know someone who might knit a dog scarf. That connection adds levity and draws readers in.
Irritation can be funny: You read that right. Irritating your character can lead to a bit a humor. Maybe your character is a neat freak but has to share office space with slob. Or maybe she hates reptiles but gets roped into watching her neighbor’s iguana. The character’s internal reaction to these events can funny but, at the same time, makes them relatable. We all know a neat freak (or are one!). We’ve all been roped into doing things not of our choosing. I know I have!
Have fun with incongruity: Characters that are incongruous can lend a bit of humor. Imagine a self-described environmentalist who drives a giant truck or a health nut with a stash of Diet Coke. Closely related to incongruity is the surprise attribute: the librarian who takes hula lessons or the tough cop who rescues injured birds. While none of these characters traits are hysterical, they will lend a bit of levity to the narrative while simultaneously giving your characters depth.
Timing is everything: If your character is in the middle of a traumatic situation, it’s not the best time for humor. That said, the character might flash back to an earlier time when circumstances were easier or happier. These flashbacks can include a bit of humor without making light of your character’s current situation. In fact, the flashbacks can provide context, making the current situation even more poignant – things were not always this way. Another way to use timing is to create a few humorous moments before the point in the book where things take a turn for the worse. By way of example, in my work in progress, the main characters are attending an animal rescue charity ball where cats up for adoption roam around the star-studded ballroom. There are a cringeworthy number of cat puns before my characters get the call which changes the course of the book.
Use side characters/situations: If your main character is going through a difficult time, it is unlikely that he or she will be funny. But there can be a funny friend or sibling or co-worker. Or a funny event. In The Language of Divorce, one of the side characters is a reporter who features stories on new trends. His latest: a woman whose cowboy costumes for pigs become an internet sensation.
Your turn! Have you used any of these strategies in your writing? Do you think any would work more than others? Any I missed? Share below!
Have you read books that balance humor with heartbreak? Would you be reading The Language of Divorce? Do you have questions for Leanne Treese?
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