Limyaael's Rants

Comic Relief

Written on 2004-11-13; Read the original post on LiveJournal

This rant is a little specialized. It isn’t about just parodic or satiric fantasy, which I already did a rant on, and it isn’t about pure irony, either, which may or may not be funny depending on its position in the story. It also presumes that you know what humor is, and are not going to write so many “witty” comebacks to the Dark Lord by a character who really should know better that the readers would be interested in a five-minute session with your skull and a sledgehammer. This is about writing humorous little asides and so on in a larger serious framework.

Got it? Good.

1) Don’t write a character to be only comic relief. I can usually spot type characters from a long way off—not only the designated comic relief, but the designated love interest, the designated ineffective rival, the designated gruff but kind mercenary, and so on. It’s annoying. I have the feeling that the author doesn’t care that much about creating unique people for her story, but would rather come up with types, because it’s easier.

Fantasy writing shouldn’t be any easier than any other kind of writing. If it is, you are doing something wrong.

Supposedly, the jester or fool archetype is permissible in a fantasy story because…well, for the same reason that all archetypes are, I suppose. But starting out with archetypes is not a good way to get deep characterization, and very few people have the skill to write in the kind of distant, fairy-tale manner that will make the readers care about the story in spite of shallow characterization. You may find that a character in your story echoes, say, the Fool in King Lear, but set out to create the Fool, and you run into the limits of genre and situation almost immediately.

So. Decide on not only that your character is funny, but what context that humor is in. Does it come most often at the expense of the character’s own situation? She might be adored and pitied in the same breath. Does it come at the expense of other people? She might be the kind of person that her fellow travelers laugh at as long as her wit’s not turned on them, but she’s not likely to be very popular. Does it come from taking serious matters and adding a punchline after them? Depending on the danger they’re in, her party members might laugh or treat her like a pariah, for making light of, say, a death or an enemy who will kill them if he catches them.

One thing that’s usually unrealistic about the designated comic relief, beyond her actions, is the response of other people to her. Everyone almost always laughs, unless they’re jealous, even if they have pressing reasons to disapprove of her brand of humor. Try to remember that no one can possibly be funny to all people at all times, the same way that no one can possibly be beautiful to everyone.

2) Give the other characters a chance to shine. Want to use humor in your fantasy but not trap one character into the comic relief role? Then spread the humor among several characters. There may be one with each brand of humor, which would only make sense; people are amused by different things and crack jokes in different ways in real life, after all.

This has several advantages, beyond realism and getting rid of the comic relief stereotype:

a) It lends an element of surprise. If not every line out of the character’s mouth is a joke, it can surprise the reader when he comes out with a funny (or, alternatively, spare them from groaning because the author thinks his hero is amusing, and he’s really, really not).
b) Characters can use their humor in different ways—not just to relieve tension or make people laugh, but to gain approval for a plan or distract attention from something objectionable that they’re doing.
c) It makes the characters seem more individualized than mere speech style. I’ve seen authors conspicuously alter the speech style to portray different people. It was…painful.
d) Fantasy has a problem of not only making secondary characters stand in the protagonist’s shadow, but be shadows themselves, and the “quirks” that authors assign them are more memorable for their oddness than any inherent interest. A sense of humor is one way of making that person seem real, and not just a shadow. I would be more interested in an assassin with a dry sense of humor than an assassin who woke screaming from nightmares about ice.

3) Know when it’s appropriate to diffuse tension. It’s not always appropriate. I cannot tell you how often the following has happened:

*Limyaael settles in with a good fantasy book*
*building tension*
Limyaael: Ah, this looks good! I wonder what’s going to happen next?
*author snaps tension with a really dumb joke*
Limyaael: AAARGH!
*book shuts*

Supposedly, you can’t let readers get too tense. But fantasy readers are a bit different than, say, someone reading a romance. Part of the attraction of fantasy is the danger, the big battles, the “Ohmygod, that was so cool” scenes. If the author is forever destroying suspense with a character, oh, using potty humor, then the fantasy quickly becomes a bland mishmash of scenes. When you get to the dramatic confrontation or night before a battle that might kill everyone, the last thing you need is the character joking about the local equivalent of Port-a-Potties.

I’ve heard this defended as the character just being himself. But you need to think about the larger pace of the narrative as well as that one character. Want a reader to cry over your touching farewell scene, and know that that character would make a fart joke? Then leave out the character. It can be painful, it can be hard, but otherwise you’re sacrificing most of the story just to that one person. No one in fantasy deserves that. No, not even your protagonist.

4) Show the costs of humor as well as the benefits. Maybe your protagonist really is the kind of person who would wisecrack to the Dark Lord’s face while in chains. Maybe it’s even witty. (I’ve read a few stories like that, though those are far smaller than the overall percentage where it’s actually occurred). But why does the Dark Lord just sit on his throne and gape? Why is everyone always so taken aback when the protagonist makes a witty remark?

The Dark Lord might have his soldiers beat someone who insults him to his face. Hey, he’s the Dark Lord. He has the power and the will to do so. Perhaps he has his soldiers kill the wisecracking character. Perhaps, if the smart-aleck is the hero and needs to live, he kills someone else for every “funny” thing that comes out of the hero’s mouth. That should cure the habit quickly enough, and it would probably be in character for the Dark Lord. Most authors who are fond of witty protagonists forget that, as well as that one person being in character, everyone else needs to be as well. (A variation of point 1, where people tend to just laugh, regardless of whether it makes sense for them to do).

Perhaps the party’s wit just can’t hold himself back when the fat king is debriefing them on defending the country, and makes a crack about the king’s weight. I would be more surprised than not if the party wit didn’t wind up with shit detail.

Perhaps the witty noblewoman—who probably doesn’t want to wear dresses, either—spreads amusing but malicious stories about another noblewoman. She might not have to watch for poison in her tea, but a tear in her dress or cat piss in her perfume bottle? Quite possibly.

You remember the one kid in school who always tried waaay too hard to be the class clown? Now think of him in place of your oh-so-witty protagonist, and you might have a glimpse of how other people, especially the targets of her barbs, could see her.

5) Please, no puns that are dependent on English. I’ve had whole books ruined for me because the key to the plot was a pun or riddle that depended on the coincidence of two English words, or even an English letter. Most times, the people in your other world will not be speaking English. There are exceptions, certainly, but it destroys suspension of disbelief when you’ve gone to some trouble to set up the other language and then kill everything for the sake of making a funny.

Besides which, think of a fantasy author who is famous for using puns in his series: Piers Anthony, with the Xanth books, which have tended to decline steadily as the series went on. Do you really want a series that will remind people of the Xanth books in any way?

6) Don’t force the irony. Say one character makes a loud boasting wager: “I would stake my castle on it!” Meanwhile, the next chapter shows his castle being destroyed.

Ironic? Sure. Funny? It probably depends on the character and the situation, especially how much the reader likes him. Manipulative? Oh hell yes.

Irony of that sort, where one character unwittingly steps into trouble because of an occurrence that he cannot possibly know about, needs special circumstances to work. It has to be a natural part of the plot; if the writer of the previous example had the enemy destroy the character’s castle when he had no reason to do so, it would smack of the writer striving way too hard after what’s not a particularly good bit of irony. It has to happen for some other reason than to punish the character; since it’s an open author intrusion in the text, given that it depends on things like chapter arrangement, it’s very easy for the author to show favoritism or hatred for a particular character this way. And, finally, it has to not happen too often. If the author seizes every possible chance to display irony, then she’s going to become focused on making the story “funny fantasy” and not “good fantasy,” or, for that matter, “good funny fantasy.”

One or two instances of this kind of thing a book are enough, I think, and more than enough if they’re clumsily-handled. Irony is one thing authors love to use and snicker up their sleeves about. But when the snickering becomes loud enough for your audience to notice, you aren’t doing your job so much as indulging yourself.

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