Zestful Blog Post #264
In the July/August 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine we find a feature by yours truly on writing comic characters. I focused on classic types of funny characters, looking at how master writers handled them, and how we can do it too. There are other great articles about writing humor, including an interview with one of my fave authors, cover boy George Saunders.
Here’s the intro and first section of my article, "Funny People":
[Magazine excerpt begins]
It was 1975, and I was a nervous freshman unpacking my Samsonites in my university dorm room when a strong voice behind me said, “Hey.” Standing in the open doorway was the darkly beautiful girl who was already establishing herself as the floor’s alpha. She looked at me with a stern expression and demanded, “Are you hip?”
Unsure what the hell she meant, I thought a moment, then responded, “I wouldn’t think that’s for me to say.”
She looked stunned, then burst into uproarious laughter. “Oh! You are a character!” she cried. “That was deadpan! You will be my jester!” I hadn’t meant my answer to be funny, but it must have triggered some humor receptor in her brain. I have a feeling she’d been interviewing other girls, who probably sought her approval by asserting that they were, yes, sure, hip. So my answer probably contrasted with theirs, and that’s what seemed funny. This young creature was trying to build a story for herself, in which she was the head of a sort of aristocratic court, right there in the midst of everybody’s textbooks and popcorn poppers and Cosmo issues.
The court situation didn’t exactly work out (for one thing, no one was into being a lady-in-waiting), but this incident got me thinking for the first time about the power of a type. I had long ago learned that being funny can be an asset. Side note: ‘Deadpan’ is a combination word, made up of ‘pan,’ slang for face, and ‘dead,’ meaning expressionless.
Not all authors employ humor; bookstore shelves real and digital are populated with fiction that takes itself deeply seriously. But many authors use humor to brighten their stories, give their readers an emotional escape valve, and add a layer of fun. Comedy can fit into suspense, romance, literary, fantasy, horror, you name it. Why? Because it’s like real life. We’ve all experienced countless humorous moments, even amidst sadness—like the one time I attended a burial where the backhoe fell into the grave.
If you’re considering using humor in your story, play, or novel, I’ll bet it’s because you have a keen sense of wit yourself: You can laugh at the absurdities of life, and you enjoy the humor in the stories you read and ingest via other media. It’s as simple as that.
There are lots of ways to write funny moments. You can put wisecracks into the mouth of your detective or write action sequences where a little kid puts a peanut on the train tracks and changes the course of history. But long-haul comedy—that is, comedy that can develop and sustain a story—starts with characters. The comic character is unique in that he or she can be counted on to deliver humor and truth together.
Just as comedy itself tends to fall into types—slapstick, dark humor, farce, satire, irony, and so on—so too do comic characters. Types are a handy way to understand comedic characters—and to consciously create them. I’m not talking about stereotypes, which most readers recognize as clichéd, unimaginative, or even offensive. The types discussed here are classics. They’re successful because they allow flexibility in a story, and because readers and writers alike recognize them as old friends.
Now let’s break down some of these entertaining breeds and see how to use them.
It was no coincidence that my dorm-mate dubbed me jester, as it’s arguably the earliest form of the comic character.
In medieval and renaissance times, royal courts employed entertainers to tell jokes, sing, and dance. We have history that some of these jesters also became confidants of—and advisors to—the monarch, finding a way to speak truth to power under the safety shield of jest. “My lord, the one you banish will gain cunning in the punishment! Haha, just kidding!” And the king may reject that warning, or not.
Shakespeare made liberal use of jesters, also known as fools, in his plays both comic and tragic. Puck, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, sprinkles his love potion on the wrong handsome sleeping dude, thus pivoting the plot in a way both humorous and disastrous. Audiences love the “Uh-oh” moment! The Fool in King Lear explains things with biting, rueful wit and provides a voice of reason from which Lear can still learn, even though he’s made a mess of things.
Randle P. McMurphy in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a more modern jester. He swaggers into the asylum and flings around his brand of street-criminal wit and wisdom—effecting change, comedy, and tragedy all in one story.
How to do it:
· Give your jester a low place in the socioeconomic pecking order. This sets the character apart, for when he subtly speaks truth, your audience will be surprised—and a little apprehensive. If your jester doesn’t have much in terms of status or resources, he doesn’t have much to lose. That’s an opportunity right there.
· Make your jester a character of some complexity. Plain silliness falls flat here. Feigned ignorance, however, can work, as when a jester pretends not to understand something while making a sly point. Whether you show much of it or not, your jester does have an inner life. He goes home to his family, makes love to his wife, gets angry at the TV. Your jester might resent his role and strive to change it, or he might relish his role and strive to make the most of it.
· Show other characters learning from the jester. The school custodian is often hilariously clumsy, but the kids trust her with their secrets because she never tells, and always gives the best advice.
You’ll notice a pattern emerging: A key to successful comic characters is contrast. That’s why pairs of characters can work so well.
[Excerpt ends; for the rest, visit your local newsstand or here.]
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