On the Importance of Humor In Writing

Humor in books– especially children and teen books– is crucial.  It is the most important thing you could ever have– barring a plot, literacy, a minimum of one character and possibly a functioning mind.  But you can get by without most of those– you cannot get by without humor.

Kids see things as funny.  They see the world as funny.  They have a knack for pointing out the ridiculous and the silly.  There is no greater comedian than the child.  They don’t understand why something should be structured– so they do whatever, whenever.  They don’t understand what exactly the point of a conversation on one particular topic is– so they spout out whatever pops into their heads.  This is the basis of randomness.

Barry Cunningham, editor for Cornelia Funke, Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams, former editor of JK Rowling, and founder of the Chicken House publishing company, put it the best way in an interview:

“I think humour is so important in children’s books and you find children laughing when they are scared and crying when they are happy. And I cannot think that there is anything in life which is not essentially humorous. Life and death and everything else. That is the central portion of the child in me. I absolutely believe everything comes as part of something else. Like everything serious is funny as well, everything sad is funny as well, everything scary is funny as well.”

“Humor is so important in children’s books…”  So why are there so many dry, boring children’s books?  The reason I like Rick Riordan, Obert Skye, Matt Myklusch, Brandon Mull and John Flanagan so much is because of their humor levels.  Chris D’Lacey, Cornelia Funke, Christopher Paolini, and Gordon and Williams all attempt humor– but don’t always make it quite there.  I still like them because of their creativity, but they aren’t naturally funny writers.

What’s ironic about literature today is the oxy-moron between modern writing and modern life.  Everyone likes humor– we all like to laugh at different things.  Some people like David Letterman, some like commercials *glares at younger sisters*, some like comics.  Everyone likes jokes.  So why decide that, even though everyone likes jokes, you shouldn’t include any in your writing?  If you don’t think it’s funny, not many others will.  (Then again, just because you think it’s funny, not everyone else will.)  And it doesn’t take much of a sense of humor to put a joke in the story– make the bad guy wake up, throw some clothes on, then when he rushes out to see why his Klaxon is ringing, have him wearing purple pants together with a bright green shirt.  I guarantee you, even if you can’t crack a joke to save your life, his reaction when he notices will amuse someone.  It really doesn’t take much.

But this also goes the other way– bad attempts at humor.  There is so much cute, patronizing humor in children’s books that it makes me want to throw up.  Kids don’t like to be treated as stupid.  So why put jokes in there that would only appeal to someone too slow to know what you’re talking about?  Unless you’re writing a picture book, these aren’t three-year-olds you’re writing for.

Did you know that The Hobbit is better liked than the Lord of the Rings trilogy?  You probably did.  Do you know why it’s liked better?  If you have a modicum of logical competence, you can probably deduce the answer from the context: humor.  I remember laughing my head off at Tolkien’s explanation of how golf came to be.  The three trolls Bilbo Baggins burgles have a hilarious conversation about how to eat the hobbit and dwarves.  Gandalf cracks a joke or two occasionally.  And all of this makes The Hobbit that much better than the Trilogy, even though the Trilogy has so much more appeal fantasy-wise.  Rings of Power, giant eyes in the middle of nowhere, orcs chasing elves and vice versa– all outdone by a touch of humor.  Hmmm…

If not for humor, ours would be a dreary lifestyle.  Ironically, this sounds funny; but it’s true.  Humor makes life better.  No one likes depression, and what do ninety-nine percent of all doctors say is good for you (except that one guy who wants to dissect me)?  Laughter.  Laughter is the best medicine, and laughter comes out of humor.  Whether it’s laughter at a good joke, a bad pun, or just a terrible thing that happened to your best friend that struck you as funny– it’s all humor.  The consequences of this laughter might not be so good for you, but laughter makes people feel better.

The only reason Lemony Snicket’s truly depressing Series of Unfortunate Events would be any good at all is because of the humor involved.  Those books are hilarious in their gloomy, pessimistic Eeyore style.  They still aren’t the greatest books in the world, but they’re good for entertainment on days when there is nothing else.

Though most books nowadays depend on feels to make their readers like them, it’s hard to beat humor.  I must say that I prefer laughing at a fictional character to sighing over a fictional character.  The only way I’ll enjoy a book based on romance is if it is absolutely hilarious at the same time.  The same for saddening books.  The Bartimaeus Trilogy has one of the best bittersweet endings I’ve ever seen, and yet it’s one of the funniest books I know.  You might think humor would ruin a perfectly good tearful ending– and you’d be right, some of the time.  But humor can make a sad scene even more so.

It isn’t a requirement for writing that you have to be perfectly serious the whole time.  It’s actually one of the things that will make me dislike your writing quicker.  You like to laugh– give your readers something to laugh about.  If you don’t, soon you won’t have any readers at all.

There was once a little boy who never laughed once in his life.  He just sat on the swings all day moping about the state of the world at the moment.  When someone told him a joke, he took it quite seriously and didn’t understand it.  His friends deserted him soon afterward.  Quite ironically, he became a laughingstock to those he knew.  He grew up to become an example to other little kids on how if you make faces too much, soon your face will freeze that way.  Don’t grow up to become an example to other little kids on how if you make faces too much, soon your face will freeze that way.  Laugh and make others laugh.

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24 Comments

  1. Nice post. I agree that a bit of levity is always needed in a great work of literature. Books like the Bartimaeus Trilogy (the perfect example, by the way) manage to combine humor and feels into an unforgettable story.

    Reply
    • The Bartimaeus Trilogy is truly unique. There is no story like it. Except perhaps Star Wars… I’ll have to think about that.

      Reply
  2. huh. I guess I should try to work more humor into my novel. The trouble is, I have difficulty finding anything funny to put in! Everything seems too dorky or obscure that I think it wouldn’t work 😦

    Reply
    • I just put whatever comes to mind in there and hope people don’t think it’s too ludicrous. As you practice you get better at funny quips.

      Reply
  3. I love this, Liam. Fantastic post. This is kind of what I meant in my post about going ahead with making fun of things.

    I would add Terry Pratchett and Roald Dahl to that list. 🙂

    Reply
    • The list of funny authors, or the list of authors whose editor was Cunningham? If the latter, I would have if I had known– but though I looked, I couldn’t find a list. I suspected that Dahl was connected to Cunningham, but couldn’t confirm it, so I just went with what I knew.

      Reply
      • No, funny authors. I have no idea who his editor was. Argh, the font’s gone all weird on your blog… looks like Webdings…

      • Well, I’ll have to have read their works and liked them before they get on that list– sadly, I can only speak for those authors I have read.

  4. I completely agree with this post. My book is… extremely depressing most of the time, so to brighten the mood and make readers laugh I add humor.

    I don’t like books that are always serious, with no humor at all, because it just makes me feel upset and depressed and then I don’t want to finish it.

    Reply
  5. Charley R

     /  July 3, 2012

    Thou speakest the truth, my man! Wonderful post! ANOTHER!

    Reply
  6. Ah, I didn’t realise that the Hobbit was better-liked than the Lord of the Rings. I know that for myself I have never really been able to say which I liked better: the Hobbit was a more light and cheerful hobbit’s holiday — although it did have some sad parts — while the Lord of the Rings was deeper and darker. I realise now that the reason I liked the Hobbit just as much was certainly, as you say, the humour. It is true that the LotR is slightly lacking in that area, although Pippin and Merry were good.

    I believe my writing is overly humourless too — I need to work on that.

    Reply
  7. *falls over in astonishment* You’ve never read Roald Dahl?! You must have had a deprived childhood! 😛

    Reply
    • No, I was just reading Brian Jacques at that time. Dahl never interested me.

      Reply
      • See, I’ve never been able to really get into those Redwall books! I always thought it was because there were too many characters, but that doesn’t make any sense – HP, Underland Chronicles, and other books I love have oodles of characters too. Maybe I just didn’t like the characters.

      • I’d suggest you read the Castaways of the Flying Dutchman– very good trilogy.
        Jacques is a slightly slow writer… He likes to describe, and the animal characters take a little getting used to at first. But it’s a great world and I still love it.

  8. I will!

    I think I just get animal characters confused easily. I imagined almost all the Warriors cats looking the same.

    Reply
    • I liked animal fiction until I realized that it was really stupid and let it go. Dan Gutman you have to thank for that. But I did like the first series of Warriors. Long, long ago in a land far far away.

      Reply
      • Dan Gutman does not compute. I’ll look him up.

      • He’s an author for children, a funny one at that. Nightmare at the Book Fair is probably his most recent book, and one of the funniest. It has chapters from all the genres of literature, from a Dr. Seuss-style rhyming chapter to a perusal of the dictionary– but it all follows the story of a kid who doesn’t like to read who is stolen into all of these stories when a crate of books falls on his head. Two of the funniest are the Fantasy and Humor chapters (obviously for the latter), but the Animal Fiction is very good as well. I’d highly suggest it.

  9. I think the biggest problem with me and humor is that my style of humor doesn’t always fit the greatest into writing. I make bad jokes and puns… like if someone says something about making a point, I’ll crack something about pencil sharpeners. They’re not always very funny, and sometimes hard to follow. Or I’ll reference something, especially movies. Like, earlier, my brother was complaining about something being turbo-powered, so I said, “Are you going to make it Theo-powered, instead?” My other siblings laughed, but I can’t very well stick that into novels, especially fantasy ones stuck in made-up worlds where the things I normally reference don’t exactly exist…

    *muses over this*

    Reply

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