Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Being funny is hard, and it’s particularly hard in writing. Perhaps it’s because humor depends on shared context, or perhaps it’s because it trumps any other element of a story – how can you crack a joke without lessening the reader’s involvement in a story’s romance, horror or mystery?
For many authors, the answer is to pass that task onto their characters. Done well, funny characters will find a permanent home in your readers’ hearts. Done badly, they’ll draw attention away from the narrative and act like kryptonite to the emotional content of your story.
The bad news is that it’s incredibly easy to do funny characters badly. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be, and in this article I’ll be looking at how you can write genuinely funny characters who work whether they’re in a comedic world or just lightening up a more dramatic narrative.
Theories of humor
There are many different theories of humor, and learning about them will help any writer craft a funny character. The most useful to authors, though, is something known as incongruity-resolution theory.
This theory suggests that a humorous response is created in the moment we recognize the reality of a situation that we had previously perceived as strange or unfamiliar. In short, the moment we ‘get’ something that initially seemed odd. It’s the blueprint for traditional jokes – the setup creates an incongruity, a strange idea which creates confusion or expectation in the listener, and the punchline instantly resolves that confusion into understanding.
This is best explained through what is generally considered to be the archetypal ‘joke’. The setup ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ gets the listener thinking up all the possible puns, bits of wordplay or surreal reasoning that might explain that situation. The punchline ‘To get to the other side.’ reveals that the answer was surprisingly simple; the chicken’s presence was a misdirect, it was the simple reasoning behind crossing a road to which the listener should have devoted their attention.
This is the simplest form of incongruity-resolution theory, and it’s vital to note that it’s a subconscious response. The moment of resolution occurs incredibly quickly, and the rush from a state of confusion to a state of understanding is part of what powers the perception of humor. Most people, readers included, would be hard-pressed to explain why they find certain things funny.
Whether incongruity-resolution theory is the be-all and end-all of humor is debatable, but it’s a great way to understand how to craft funny characters. There are many ways to create that moment of realization – the recognition of how the situation really is – and different people prefer different approaches.
Our personalities reflect how willing we are to engage with a situation. If someone finds a particular approach uninteresting then they won’t become invested in the incongruity. Without that initial confused energy the resolution has no impact, and so what’s funny to one person does nothing for another.
Thankfully, there are a lot of choices for authors when trying to make their readers laugh, and a wide range of funny characters to choose from. Characters like…
1. The fool
The fool is a character who misunderstands a situation, concept or comment. Their behavior is incongruous with the reader’s own understanding of a situation, and resolution comes when the reader contrasts the way in which the fool is behaving with the way in which a less foolish character would be expected to behave.
“Jump, Tim!” I ordered.
“Right, Nick!” Tim jumped up and down on the spot.
“No. I mean – jump off the bridge!”
“What?” Tim looked at me as if I was mad.
– Anthony Horowitz, Three of Diamonds
Fools have limited usage because the moment in which the story resolves their incongruity often doesn’t match the moment at which the reader does the same thing. In the above excerpt, the reader is intended to achieve resolution when Nick explains the intent behind his instruction. Despite this, a savvy reader may have achieved resolution as soon as Tim jumped up and down on the spot.
This can render the fool irritating, as the reader is forced to ‘play along’ with the false incongruity until the moment the writer intended to create resolution (or ‘explain’ the fool’s misunderstanding). In the above excerpt this is a short space, but the longer it is the more frustrating it can be. The reader may also ‘give up’ on the fool, assuming they will do the wrong thing and therefore never experiencing the initial sense of incongruence.
Fools are best utilized in comedic stories, where their misapprehensions are supported by the nature of the world around them. Those looking for a more versatile type of funny character could try…
2. The comedian
Where the fool is presented in contrast to the reader, the comedian acts as more of a companion. The fool undercuts the reader’s actual understanding of a situation, whereas the comedian addresses the reader’s awareness of their understanding. A good example would be a character who is knowingly blasé about potential danger, as in scenes where one character reels off a list of threats and another approaches them as a minor concern:
Character 1: So after we get past the retinal scanner, trick the infra-red cameras, cross the pressure sensitive hallway and into the most impregnable vault ever devised, all we have to do is sneak six million dollars out across a busy casino floor?
Character 2: Yep.
Unlike the fool, the comedian understands the situation perfectly, but deliberately acts in an incongruous way so as to amuse other characters, the reader or themselves.
In the extract below, Jonathan Stroud has an incredibly powerful, shape-shifting character undercut a fearsome moment with a humorous aside.
I forced my poor old essence into an imposing shape; a lion-headed warrior, of the kind that fought in Egypt’s wars.1 Leather breastplate, looped bronze skirt, eyes that shone like crystal, fanged teeth glaring from black gums.
1Technically, I suppose I was lioness-headed, since I lacked a mane. Manes are very overrated; OK, they’re good for posing, but they block out all your side vision in battle, and get terribly claggy with accumulated blood.
– Jonathan Stroud, Ptolemy’s Gate
Stroud’s character juxtaposes a serious moment with comedic nit-picking, and the reader finds humor – the situation has changed unexpectedly, but they ‘get’ it. As with the fool, the key to writing a good comedian is in ensuring that the moment of reader resolution comes at the moment of their own comment or act.
My example of the ‘list of difficult tasks met with cheerful agreement’ has become such a common trope that it no longer entertains. The reader recognizes the juxtaposition before it happens, thinking ‘I get it’ mid-list. The comedian’s simplistic response becomes a chore – the reader no longer has to quickly adjust, but slowly wait for what they know is coming.
Be careful, also, that you don’t go too far to create these juxtaposed moments. Sometimes, in trying to set up the perfect situation for a comedian, authors write artificial scenes that alienate the reader before the comedian has had a chance to speak. This is a different type of problem than that posed by…
3. The bystander / The cynic
The bystander or cynic is similar to the comedian, but they operate outside of the story rather than within its boundaries. The comedian undercuts the narrative while behaving as a participant – in the bank robbery example, the second character is mocking the first, or at least trying to make them laugh. In contrast, when the bystander undercuts the moment it is because they are above it.
Richard Stark’s The Dame is a murder mystery novel with a difference. It stars his recurring character Grofield, usually the star of crime capers, who has no interest in joining in with the story’s intrigue. As deduction occurs around him, Grofield only wants to escape, and even once he has cracked the case he is unwilling to engage with the narrative around him.
“I know who killed her,” Grofield said, picking up his orange juice. “It doesn’t make any difference.” He drank the juice.
She stared at him. “You know?”
“Yes.” Grofield attacked his eggs.
“Well?” she said.
He looked at her. “Oh, no,” he said. “Tell you, you mean? Not a chance of it.”
“For heaven’s sake, why not?”
He swallowed egg, sipped coffee, put the cup back down. “Because,” he said, “you won’t believe me. I’ll say the name, you’ll say but it couldn’t be, I’ll say but it is, you’ll say what makes you think that, I’ll get into a whole thing defending myself, trying to prove it…” He shook his head. “I’m not going to get involved in that,” he said. “I have too many other things to think about.” He ate some toast.
– Richard Stark, The Dame
Here the reader understands what can be expected of a murder mystery, but Grofield creates incongruity by refusing to play along. This kind of character often highlights that they’re in a fictional medium, and the moment of resolution comes when the reader goes from working within the confines of the story’s logic to recognizing its true reality as entertainment. Grofield highlights and flouts genre conventions. The reader, who has been working according to these conventions, achieves resolution when they take a step back and recognize their pre-existing assumptions.
The downside of the cynic is that their humor often comes at the expense of the narrative. The more they laugh at the stakes and highlight the fiction behind events, the less effective those elements are in earning the reader’s investment. It’s a difficult balance, but it can be pulled off.
Christopher Moore’s Lamb is a good example. The protagonist gets laughs from his laissez faire approach to the events of the story, but encourages reader investment because he displays sincere care and respect for the characters around him. He finds the society around him laughable, but laments the effects it has on his friends.
This isn’t always possible, so if reader investment is your chief concern, you may prefer…
4. The friend
The friend is a character whose humor stems from the reader’s in-depth understanding of their nature. Here, the character may create incongruity by doing or saying something unexpected, but resolution occurs when the reader recognizes that their action is actually consistent with a pre-existing aspect of their character.
In Peter Jackson’s movie The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, characters Gimli and Aragorn are poised to jump across a chasm and join a battle. Gimli is a proud warrior engaged in a friendly (though sincere) rivalry with their absent elf companion.
Gimli: (Mumbles) Toss me.
Gimli: (Quickly) I cannot jump the distance! You’ll have to toss me!
(Aragorn nods slowly… he turns to lift Gimli.)
Gimli: Oh… don’t tell the elf.
Aragorn: Not a word.
– Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Initially unexpected, Gimli’s request is actually true to what the viewer already knows – an incongruous request is instantly resolved by exposing its recognizable behavioral roots.
This type of character acts as the backbone of most sitcoms, where they can be put in strange and unusual situations yet always create resolution by acting in a way typical to their characterization. Shows like The Big Bang Theory and Scrubs utilize these characters as mainstays, though perhaps the most notable example is That’s So Raven, a children’s sitcom so firmly based around this kind of humor that even the show’s title mimics the moment of comedic resolution.
The friend is one of the most effective types of funny character because their humor draws energy from the reader’s investment in the story. When a reader really understands a character, these moments of resolution can be experienced in the most bizarre situations through the subtlest of reveals. What’s more, the reader is reminded with each instant of ‘friend’ humor how well they know the character, increasing their existing attachment.
Wit, the ability to verbally present a situation so as to evoke humor, is a skill in its own right. It may be something your funny character can do, but it doesn’t define their humor in the same way as the categories above. Wit is a manner of presentation whereas something like cynical humor is content.
That said, wit works on the exact same principles described above. Presenting an idea in a novel or interesting way makes it momentarily incongruent – it has been presented in an unusual way, and resolution comes when a reader recognizes that it’s something they recognize after all. Again, this is both subconscious and near instant; all the reader knows is that your phrasing made them laugh.
I then retired to The Sovereign, a grubby bed and breakfast in King’s Cross, where I spent two days and three nights while my chin dried up and the bruises on my body turned to beautiful colors. Outside my window, the British public traded crack, slept with itself for money, and fought drunken battles it couldn’t remember in the morning.
– Hugh Laurie, The Gun Seller
Wit is applicable to most of the types I mentioned above. Cynics benefit from wit – it makes them seem even further above their situation – but a great wit can also be one of the recognizable factors that makes friend characters work. This isn’t an exception though, since really funny characters don’t just stick to one set of skills…
Building a funny Frankenstein
Categories like ‘fool’ and ‘friend’ are easy ways to identify the type of humor your characters can exhibit, but the key to writing really funny characters is in finding ways to combine those categories. Thankfully, this isn’t difficult. Tim Diamond’s stupidity, for example, makes him a fool, but its reliable recurrence through the story also makes him a friend. Gimli is a great friend character, but the need for a warrior to be hurled at his opponents also evokes fool humor.
Even more humor is possible by introducing different types of funny character – pairing a cynic with a fool allows both to shine, contrasting their different behavior for more laughs. Similarly, a friend can maintain a reader’s investment in the events of a story even while a cynic tests it (or, in a fantastically written partnership, feeds off of it).
There are even ways to combine funny characters with funny events or settings for different types of humor. A classic is the bumbling fool who, due to the events of the story, accidentally ends up saving the day. The incongruence of a fool being successful is resolved by the reader’s reflection on the events that made it possible (or their recognition of the artifice behind events).
Remember that your funny characters don’t exist in isolation – not from other characters, and not from the events of the story. Funny characters come from an understanding of what is funny and why, but funny moments come from knowing how to combine your creations for maximum impact.
For more on how to create and use your characters, check out The Dos And Don’ts Of Writing Smart Characters. If you’d like to know more about combining different types of character, head over to How Many Characters Should A Novel Have? or for advice on developing a friend character see Nail Your Character’s Backstory With This One Simple Tip.
Do you think there’s another type of funny character, or do you think real humor isn’t so easy to categorize? Let me know in the comments.