Make Your Writing Funny: Writing Humorous Character Reactions

In the last article, we talked about creating humorous characters for fiction. Now that we've done that, let's toss them into the pit and actually get 'em to do funny stuff.

Remember that a humorous character is just a normal character that has exaggerated traits or expresses his personality in an exaggerated way. And the reactions DON'T have to be overblown - even very subtle, reserved characters can react in such an unexpected way that it makes you laugh.

Because of that, writing a funny story isn't much different from writing a normal one. All of the action is still filtered through the character's perspective. The only difference is that a humorous character's filter is a bit tweaked. If Joel absolutely hates business meetings and he's locked in the meeting room for another three-hour snorefest, play off of that. If he bottles up his rage inside, give him a cursing, spewing internal monologue with crazy metaphors and twists of phrase. If he likes to pretend he's listening even though he couldn't care less, have him pretend to write notes, but make the topic about, say, the coolest way he'd prefer to get a bullet loaded into his brain. Be in-character, but be creative.

And when you're writing your first draft, don't bother making it funny yet. Shoot for normal stuff first. Don't strain to have a character utter something clever unless inspiration delivers gold on a silver platter. Make a solid story with good characterization, and tighten up the narrative as you normally would.

After a break, head back in and examine each line. Now you're aiming to add color. How can you make reactions more subtle? How can your characters draw unexpected comparisons? How can they say unexpected things? How can these things create ludicrous, hilarious mental images? Use all of the humor-writing tricks you've learned so far to make your story funnier WITHOUT breaking the core message.

Here's an in-the-field example taken from Author of Fortune, the weekly comic fiction serial held right here at Haven't heard of it? Judging by the lack of comments on those posts, apparently no one else has either :V

Anyway, in this scenario, a character named Micheal tells another character named Glenn about a recent problem with his ex-wife, Darla. Here's how the statement could be read in a normal story:

“I just got back from clearing a situation with Darla,” Micheal said. “The judge said she could take half of my stuff, so she took the dog and left me the dog carrier.”

Pretty plain in its normal form. I dressed it up by asking myself just what Darla might do to Micheal's beloved dog, and I saw the opportunity to stretch the scene into an outlandish mental image. Here's what I ended up with:

“I just got back from clearing a situation with Darla,” Micheal said. “The judge said she could take half of my stuff. She left me the dog carrier and put Nero in a box of packing peanuts."

It's the same scenario, yet it results in something totally different. And it still fulfills the basic humor rule - it twists an expectation, this time through that mental image of Micheal's crazy ex dropping a Doberman into a moving box.

But that might feel too much like a sitcom to you, and that's fine. Humor is a bag of tricks, in technique and presentation. Let's take a look at Catch-22 and see how Joseph Heller uses some of the techniques I've already covered and blends them into the normal, storytelling narrative:

All the officer patients in the ward were forced to censor letters written by all the enlisted-men patients, who were kept in residence in wards of their own. It was a monotonous job, and Yossarian was disappointed to learn that the lives of enlisted men were only slightly more interesting than the lives of officers. After the first day he had no curiosity at all. To break the monotony he invented games. Death to all modifiers, he declared one day, and out of every letter that passed through his hands went every adverb and every adjective. The next day he made war on articles. He reached a much higher plane of creativity the following day when he blacked out everything in the letters but a, an and the. That erected more dynamic intralinear tensions, he felt, and in just about every case left a message far more universal. Soon he was proscribing parts of salutations and signatures and leaving the text untouched. One time he blacked out all but the salutation "Dear Mary" from a letter, and at the bottom he wrote, "I yearn for you tragically A. T. Tappman, Chaplain, U.S. Army." A. T. Tappman was the group chaplain's name.

You can clearly see that Yossarian is an officer stuck in the hospital and that he's bored with censoring letters. But Heller describes how Yossarian approaches the work in a creative way. Me, I have to smile a little when I imagine this guy propped up in his hospital bed splashing these letters with black under some completely stupid rule he made up. I also love how he erases some other man's letter and adds that the CHAPLAIN is yearning for Mary's love. Smooth move, he said sarcastically, even if the sentiment isn't real.

Anything is game here. Anything can be twisted into a funny bit. You certainly shouldn't force every line to be funny, of course, and personally I'd preserve my more emotional scenes...but overall, go ahead and play with the edges. See how you can turn a straight tale into a total farce.

Next week I'll talk about an issue that's been debated before and one I'd like to comment on - the use of humor in advertising. Should you forego it and focus entirely on the selling products of the product. Not entirely. With a little stealth, you can satisfy both parties if you want. Join me then to see how.

YOUR ASSIGNMENT: Go back through a story you've written and color it up using the techniques you already know. Remember - twist the expectation. In this case, the expectation will mostly be the normal, vanilla description or reaction. How can you make it feel bold?

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Matt Willard's bio begins with witty phrasing that succinctly illustrates his stance as a humorist. It is then followed with a clever sentence that illustrates what he does in his spare time. The bio concludes with a shameless link to his Twitter profile, paired with an off-hand comment that alludes to his success with women. Laughter.

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