Jokes, Gobbledygook, and Cardboard Cutouts

Over the past week, I’ve pondered many things, but none of them long enough— or originally enough— for them to merit entire posts.  Because I’m too lazy to expand them, here are a series of partial posts that will hopefully all make sense on their own.  Feel free to comment on one, comment on all three, or bring up something completely different.  They are yours to expound upon or ignore as you will.  I hope you get something out of each.



Humor is important, as I’ve said many times.  In fact, this last week, I used humor as a tool more than I ever have.  I made more people like me in that week than in months in other places.  Correctly placed, it is a tool.  Incorrectly placed, it destroys just about everything you work to build.  But I’ve posted on that before, so I’ll let that lie.

Brandon Sanderson believes humor can be cultivated into the tool I mentioned, every time you need it.  Many others believe humor is spontaneous, a gift for those lucky enough to have an edge.  More and more, I’m finding Sanderson’s opinion correct.  He’s not a funny fellow, all by himself and spontaneous.  But when you give him the time, he writes killingly funny quips.  He’s admitted to purposefully raising his humor level in books, especially Warbreaker.  While he isn’t quick on his feet as, say, Howard Tayler, he knows the system of humor and uses it as a tool.

Moral of the story: humor is a tool, not something you’re born with.  Practice it, perfect it, and use it.


No, not profanity.  Foreign languages.  Iron Man wrote an awesome post about this on the YAvengers blog a while ago, and that post (and going to a non-English-speaking country) jump-started my desire to learn a language.  I’m learning German, and goodness, it’s fun.  For one thing, different sounds.  You think English uses up all the sounds anyone can have, until you realize that other languages have different sounds for the same letters, or new letters altogether, each with a different inflection.  It’s amazing.

Not only that, but as Iron Man mentioned, genders.  In German, cheese is a he.  A cat is a she.  Salt has no gender, although sugar is masculine.  Even if you don’t like writing sentient inanimate objects, there are ideas everywhere.  And all the idioms, or the odd words in the language, help you see the nature of the culture from which it was born.  You might not be a fantasy writer, to embark on the creation of your own language, but it still gives you an insight into people.

Moral of the story: learn a language.  It’s fun (especially with Duolingo— although it only has European languages at the moment).  It will also help you with your native language, which cannot fail to help your writing.

Side Characters

I’ve always been a fan of the saying, “Every character is the hero of their own story.”  Unfortunately, I’ve taken it too far recently.  I know from experience that I can’t reliably create a lot of really deep characters all at once for a novel— in an effort to reduce flat characters, therefore, I’ve taken to reducing my cast to about six people and leaving all the walk-ons nameless and story-less.  It’s not good.  Thus, at this point in my Gifts of Rith edit, I’m going through and creating characters (each of whom have a story), and putting them in place of cardboard cutouts I used in the first draft.

That said, that doesn’t mean I have to reveal everything within that novel.  Perhaps, in a longer novel, I would do more to unearth each character’s backstory, but for now, all I have to do is create it behind the scenes and hint.  It’s a pain to force myself to leave out perfectly good material, but it’s necessary.  That, I think, is the difficulty of being a plotter; you create a world, you create characters and motivations, and you create an incredibly twisted plan for the villain— and the reader only sees the tip of the iceberg in all of it.  Knowing what to leave out is as important as knowing what to put in.  A pantser puts it all in, then has to either remove stuff or make it all work out.  A plotter has to create more than they need, then carve it down into a workable form.

Moral of the story: side characters are important, but they don’t have to be in the spotlight.  Show enough that people think you’ve done your homework, but not so much that they get bored, or more interested in that character than in the main character.  (Also, if you have an army, you have a host of cardboard cutouts just waiting for miniature characterization.  Make use of it instead of just calling everyone “soldier” or “officer”.)


Make jokes.  Learn incomprehensibility.  Create real people.  I hope parts of this, or all of it combined, will help you in your writings.  These ideas have certainly helped me recently, and I hope I’ll be able to continue learning about each.  If you have anything to add, go for it.  I don’t have anything more to say, so I’ll gladly listen to what you’ve got.


83 thoughts on “Jokes, Gobbledygook, and Cardboard Cutouts

  1. I haven’t actually tried to use humor like that, yet. It’s usually pants and not planned for me.


    Yes, that is the price to pay with being a plotter. We can’t necessarily tell everything we know. (Unless one of those plotters is me and needs everything she can scrape together because she cannot wax eloquent about anything and can barely pass 40k even in a rewrite.)

    1. You need to pick five different types of plot lines and weave them together sometime, into something awesome and enormous. Or maybe not. Short novels can be some of the best.

      1. I can’t believe that being one of the slowest type-ers I know helps. Nor does it help that I cringe to think of editing such a five plot line monster.

      2. I’ve been hunting for this particular comment set since yesterday.
        I’m going to put in my two cents and say that five main plot lines will be more likely to make an epic than four subplots and a main plot. So, yes, I can easily find 5 plotlines in TCF, but what makes something huge is how prominent and large the plotlines are.

      3. Nevertheless, you could make those four subplots as main as you like, depending on how much time you spend on them. I guess that’s the difference.

  2. So that means I can actually make things more humorous? Hmm… Another thing to add to my check-list, which is nearly as big as my to-read list… Uh oh.

    Hey! You’re learning German, too? That’s awesome. I’m also doing it through Duolingo. Hehe. I managed to convince Kiwi and Peace to join me with it, too. I’ve found it’s even more fun to do it with other people… though I’m completely and utterly lost by the sentence structure. Oops. Okay, I’m totally off topic and I’ll stop now. Sorry.

    Anyway, as for your third point, that is something I’ve been discovering with the planning for my latest novel, not so much with side characters, but just world-building in general. It’s a little frustrating, but at the same time, it’s sparked a few short stories and other novel ideas, which is kind of nice…ish.

    1. Cool! You guys should all come into the chatroom (same link as always, although I can give it to you again if you want) and speak German. It would probably be nonsense, but it would be fun.

      That’s good. I like it when any ideas are sparked.

      1. Alright! That does sound fun. I’ll drop by after I finish school today. I still have the link, thankfully. I think I emailed it to myself so I wouldn’t lose it again… hehe.

        Yup, me too. I don’t like it so much when they distract me, though… hehe, but at least these short stories have been helping me with character development. And a little bit of world-building.

  3. I certainly haven’t been born with a strong humour ability, so it’s good to hear it can be learnt.

    And fancy that, I’ve been planning to start learning German on Duolingo one of these days as well! I tend not to be much good at learning languages: I don’t like talking to people unless I’m good enough not to embarrass myself, which doesn’t work very well. Hopefully Duolingo will help.

    As a fan of books like The Lord of the Rings that have a very large cast of minor characters, I’ve tended to use fairly large casts myself. Recently, I’ve found that I’ve been having problems with having too many characters, especially in my short fiction. In my latest story I actually removed a character or two that didn’t add much, for the sake of simplicity. I guess the quantity and depth of side characters differs immensely based on genre. If I’m writing epic fantasy, it’s best to show no restraint, but if I’m writing Poe-like horror, two characters may be all I need.

    1. Oh, of course. Do your best to practice (which will mean falling flat quite a lot near the beginning) in both conversation and writing. You won’t be able to find a formula, but you’ll eventually learn the timing and everything else inherent in being funny. You’ll get it.

      Duolingo is a program that makes it… different… to learn a language. It’s more like a game than anything else. I encourage you to start, and come into the chatroom at some point when you think you’ve got a good start and have a conversation.

      Indeed. Especially for short stories, you don’t want too many named characters. But for longform works, you can’t refer to everyone as their job description.

      1. Hmm. I think I’m improving slightly, but still a long way to go. I’m getting better at the groan-jokes though: the other night my sister was wearing a nightie that had “angle” written all over it (I think it was supposed to be angel, but misspelled), and I said she was a cute angle. I was so proud of myself.

        I’ll follow your advice when I start learning German. I think I’ll start in November/December when I finish school. (Hooray! Only three months to go!)

        Indeed. Though sometimes nameless characters work well, for example in *The Wednesday Wars* by Gary D Schidt (which I highly recommend). Then he used the exact same technique in the sequel, which sort of diminished the originality a bit.

    2. It’s not only you, Leinad–I have yet to really attempt to hold a conversation aloud in Spanish with someone who wasn’t learning it as well, and I’ve been taking Spanish more than four years now. (Wow, it sounds like a lot, but so much of it was repeat…it’s kind of frustrating.)

      Probably a pride issue, sadly…at least for me…I should probably suck it up and do it one of these days. Especially since my next-door neighbor is from Argentina and has already expressed interest.

      1. Yes, I think it’s a pride issue for me too. I really need to get out and try and have conversations with people too…

      2. Trust me, once someone knows you’re trying to learn the language, they’re much more helpful than you expect. The act of stepping out and learning their language is already a huge bonus in your favor. They won’t mind mistakes.

  4. I like this; little snippets of your views that can be discussed with little snippets of mine. It’s cool. Also, sorry for not commenting in AGES. I have been so busy. D:

    1) I’ve never been particularly funny when I write, but I add quite a few quips here and there, and they often tend to be dark and sarcastic. Which is really my kind of humor. And it works with my stories. But could I “plot” a funny line? Maybe…I’ve never tried it. I ought to, actually.

    2) I’m tri-lingual and I know a bit of French, too. While I really can’t stand making up languages (I get really irritated with too much word-building even when I read), I agree that the idea of adding gender to nouns is conceptually interesting. Why, in French, is “table” feminine? Why is “blackboard” masculine? No clue.

    3) Ooh, I love creating characters! But yeah, I don’t have more than the ones I need. I used to create too many characters that served no purpose whatsoever in the story. But luckily I’ve outgrown that.

    Sigh…come to think of it, I haven’t actually written anything in a long time. How have you been, anyway?

    1. Why, thank you! I wasn’t sure the post would work, but I’m glad it did. And no problem. It’s good to have you back.

      1) I feel the same way. A lot of times, I just force myself to write banter for a page or two, which eventually turns out something funny— which wrecks whatever emotion I had running. I need to figure out how to make that work without killing things.

      2) That’s cool. In German, tables are masculine. I don’t know why, but it’s fun.

      3) I used to force myself to create and expound upon a plot line for every single character I had. Then I boiled it down to three main characters and three supporting ones— now I’m trying to get back into the habit of walk-ons.

      I’ve been well. Slowly chipping away at the editing thing, although it’s stalled slightly on the two recent vacations. But I’m back now, preparing for school and doing as much work as I can. You?

      1. You know how if you hang a pendulum over a female, it swings in circles, but over a male, it goes back and forth? I’m certain that’s how they create these languages. They just swing a pendulum over everything before they come up with the word. When the blackboard was invented, the inventor was like “quick! bring me a pendulum!” and then swung the pendulum over his creation and swung back and forth, so he made it masculine.

      2. I suddenly ran out of anything intellectual to say, Liam. Let me try to answer anyway.

        1) I try not to add humour to an emotional scene. I have way to much fun with the emotion, anyway.
        2) German…sounds very guttural and masculine. xD How do you plan to use language to your advantage, anyway? As a frame to design your own?
        3) Five MCs. Top that. Five MCs with their own plot-lines.

        At least you’re doing something productive. My writing has suffered quite a bit. I need to start editing but I just keep putting it off. And college really isn’t helping. I began writing a novel today…wrote about 1k words. Yeah. A full 1k. *Slow clap*. I don’t know where my time is going, to be honest. But it’s going somewhere, and the day ends before I even know it.

        @Leinad: *laughs*. Why aren’t pendulums used to determine the sex of a baby? It seems a lot cheaper…

      3. Okey-dokey.

        1) You should experiment with it. In the right place, humor can make a scene even more painful.
        2) It is very guttural, but Spanish is considered more masculine. I’m saving it for when I tour in Germany with my book.
        3) Ha. You picked the wrong guy for that competition. 13 MCs, separate plot lines, in my first novel. Pantsed.

        1k words is awesome. Write another 1k tomorrow. And the next day. Slow writing isn’t bad writing.

      4. Leinad…this does solve everything. Never knew. Ha…

        Liam, what were you thinking with 13 MCs?

        DK, yes, write the 1k again! You got it!

      5. Perhaps the gender of the mother interferes… it’s all very strange. But useful for formulating languages, I am sure.

        DK, I usually feel rather pleased with myself if I get down 1000 words of fiction in a day. I don’t think I’ve ever written much more than 3K of fiction in a day (though hopefully I’ll smash that this November).

        Liam… 13? Your brain must have been on fire. Did it work?

      6. It worked perfectly, except that it was my first novel and thus inherently flawed. Until I choose to go back and actually discover how flawed it is, it worked perfectly.

      7. Of course.

        (maybe it is for the best never to look at one’s first novel again after writing it — better memories that way)

      8. 1) I get what you mean. What comes to mind immediately is the “pretending to be tough by making a joke” thing that works so excellently in sad scenes.
        2) xD Good idea. Spanish? Masculine?! Eh…yeah, I can see it. But it’s a good kind of masculine. I love listening to Spanish, even though I don’t understand a word.
        3) Fine. You win this round. But I’ll be back! *Muhahaha* *Fade into darkness*

        @Robyn: I was joking…but people actually do that?
        @Amanda, Leinad: Thank you! I didn’t manage to write much after what I wrote, though. I don’t think I’m inspired enough yet. The story’s all ready, but you know that sudden *feeling* you get when you want to write? That hasn’t happened yet. I’ve been working on another story idea in the meantime.

      9. 1) Yes. I should write a post on workshopping humor soon, if I can figure out how to workshop it first.

        2) Indeed. It’s a fun language.

        3) I look forward to it. *salutes and disappears in a puff of smoke*

  5. Good post.

    Interesting point about languages. I’ll have to keep that in mind if I continue studying Spanish.

    Terry Pratchett is good at walk-ons. I’m thinking of people like Sacharissa Cripslock, C.M.O.T Dibbler, the Librarian at the Unseen Univeristy… He’s good at making people quirky in just a few lines.

    I’ve been thinking about walk-ons, and I think a way of making them more real is twisting up generic dialogue. If your character walks into a police station, and the guy on desk duty says “How can I help you?” it isn’t as interesting as if he’d said “Now, if this is about that man on Third Street, you don’t need to worry, he’s just one of our men. He’s not a murderer like everyone thinks. He just looks like one.”

    1. Indeed, although I’ve found Pratchett’s characters to have too much exposition about their character in the moment, just for the sake of a joke. He’s good at them in that he knows exactly who they are, but he isn’t good at introducing them seamlessly (which he isn’t trying to do because he writes comedy).

      That’s true. The dialogue goes hand in hand with the personality.

      1. Indeed. He’s had a very long time to convince everyone that jokes are more important to him than plot, and if you ever want to write a real drama, you won’t get away with his style.

  6. Making jokes is my favourite part. XD Although, I admit, sometimes I write very un-funny books which I find hilarious in itself because all I do is look for funny books to read and movies to watch. But anyway. 😉 I’m agreeing with your comments about side-characters too. Absolutely. Although one of my biggest pet peeves is when, I guess, the author really loves their side character but I…just don’t. And then the side-character ends up getting a whole spin-off series and I’m just so uninterested. *shrugs* That’s probably just me. I get picky sometimes. 😉

    1. Oh, yes. I think it’s usually best to keep side characters as side characters— although in some epic fantasies it turns out really well, after about three thousand more pages. The best side characters come when the author deliberately keeps them in the background, but you want to know more. (Cornelia Funke is an absolute master at that.)

  7. So…

    1. Humor. Yeah. I tend to be much better with the spontaneous stuff. If I’m writing and I sit there thinking, “Hey, this would be a good time to crack a joke” and try to think of one it…doesn’t work 98.789% of the time. But we’ll see. I’ve been told I’m funny many times, but never been told my writing is funny.

    2. Languages! Yeah! I love languages. They’re fascinating. Frustrating at times, yes, but fascinating. Let’s see, in addition to the 4+ years of mish-mashed Spanish (I’m the best at reading, then writing and speaking, then lastly understanding some rapid speaker), I’ve had one semester of Chinese, as you know; a few weeks of Czech (definitely harder than Chinese); about a month of German (also the famed Duolingo, but I forgot about it…we’ll see if I get back to that sometime. All these people who mentioned German and Duolingo should add each other. That’d be fun.); a few random phrases of French, Swahili, Brazilian, and a few other languages I no longer can keep track of. But yeah…it’s fun.

    3. Ugh, yes. It’s horrible coming up with a backstory for a minor character and not being able to use it without messing stuff up. Sigh! That’s for personal enjoyment, I guess.

      1. You are extremely and indubitably and most graciously welcome.

        (I felt like being creative. Or maybe just silly. Because I seem to have drawn on the army of “indeeds” again.)

    1. 1) We’ll work on it together, I guess. It’s rare that my writing is that funny, especially when I’m trying really hard to get everything else right.

      2) Czech is killer. Ah, yes… We should do that. My username is TheHeadPhil, as you may have guessed, so you can add me if you wish.

      3) Indeed.

      1. 1. Oh, don’t worry, your writing is funny most of the time. At least the stuff I’ve read, which actually isn’t that much, but still.

        2. Yeah…I learned a bit of it simply because a family we know was originally from there and moved back recently. So it was funny to watch the looks on their faces. (Especially the eight-year-old.)

      2. Well… I was silly with Phil Phorce, which means that in other stuff (which can’t have pop references), I am a little less silly. It’s a pity, but true.


      3. Eh. I don’t know. I guess since the vast majority of what I’ve read has been Phil Phorce, I can’t accurately assess the situation. So maybe you’re right. But still.

      1. 2. There, I found both of you and started reviewing. Uh, now I’m confusing German with Dutch. Because truly, it is similar, sorry Dutch people who get offended.

      2. No, because I didn’t understand how it answered my question. And communication is in what the person hears you say (reads you say?), not what you actually say (write). Therefore, your attempt at communication failed.

        Hm, I sense the next argument coming on…

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