Character-Based Humor

It’s hard to be funny when you’re trying.

With plot, you can practice easily.  Create a character (Bill), decide what he wants (a sandwich), and structure it around that.  You can easily gather your antagonist, a couple side characters, and a neat little Hollywood Formula from just that information.  You can decide your length, and use that framework to practice subplots, red herrings, and a million other things.

Practicing character is the same.  With the same framework as above, you can work on character development, introducing characters without too much exposition, and all sorts of wonderful dialogue.  With setting, exactly the same.  Brainstorm your setting a little, but don’t let yourself get carried away with either the brainstorming or the description.  Even prose is easy to practice, if you take a little more time to work on it.

But humor… ick.  It’s hard to be funny on command without falling back to a joke.  Something with a setup and a punchline…  Sure, it’s fine for dinner table conversation, but for a story?  You can’t just stick a couple puns in there and hope everyone will laugh.  People know when humor is forced, and that’s what makes it so hard.  If you can’t force it, but you want it, how do you include and practice it without, well, forcing yourself to?

You can acquaint yourself with all the humorous tools.  You can try subverting expectations.  You can try using silly words.  You can try everything under the sun, but it remains difficult.  Meanwhile, funny writers like Joss Whedon and Howard Tayler keep saying that humor has to arise from the characters, not from the situation.  Once you start making fun of the situation, the reader will no longer suspend their disbelief— you’ve destroyed their engagement with the story.

So how do you use character-based humor?  How do you practice it?

Beats me.  If you know, tell me in the comments.

Actually, I had an epiphany about this just the other day.  You can interpret the phrase “character-based humor” incorrectly by saying that humor has to arise from the silly way a character will act, appear, or speak.  If that were true, you’d have a cast of clowns running the show, tripping on themselves and sitting on thumbtacks all the time.  That’s one way to manufacture humor, but it’s not the true meaning of character-based humor.  Indeed, that phrase is a bit confusing unless you see it from another angle.

Don’t think of humor as based on the character.  Think of it as based on conflict.

There are all sorts of studies that say that humor is a defense mechanism.  When we’re shocked (for no reason), we laugh.  When we see a prank on ourselves or someone else, we laugh.  And when we hear mild insults from one friend to another, we laugh.  (At least, I do.  I’m sure all of you are absolute angels, and never laugh about such things.)  All these things arise from tiny problems that we can see, after a moment’s thought, are ultimately harmless.  That little bit of conflict is funny, even though it could easily turn dangerous with the wrong push.

Humor in stories is the same way.  When two characters are friends, but they have conflicting ideas about a situation, that conflict can bring humor instead of strife.  (Or both, which is great.)  Bill and Dave might be fast friends, but when both of them want the last slice of cheese for their sandwiches, it can be hilarious to see the conflict.  Bill guards the slice of cheese zealously, keeping one eye fastened on the fridge as he tries to butter his bread at the same time.  Dave, meanwhile, has disguised himself as a bush and is slowly creeping through the kitchen, trying to escape Bill’s terrible eye.  When Bill begins to butter the counter rather than his bread, and Dave accidentally walks into the closet, it becomes funnier and funnier.  Both are completely serious about getting that slice of cheese, but their actions, to an onlooker, are hilarious.

This goes back to a couple weeks ago, when I posted about making characters seem real.  What did I say then?  Give each character a goal.  This adds conflict when the goals disagree, even if the characters are friends— and through that conflict, humor arises.  Characters need goals, goals create conflict, and conflict creates humor.  Thus, by extension, character creates humor.  That’s the definition of character-based humor.

So, in order to create and practice humor, what do you need to do?  Conflict itself isn’t inherently funny— you might follow all these steps and end up with a book where the characters just argue all the time, so everyone sounds whiny and no one laughs.  That won’t work.  So what will?

Think about how each of your characters would pursue their goal.  Some characters, when they face opposition, might go behind their friend’s back— such as Dave, in the example above.  Others might obey the other character, but keep trying to talk them out of it, bringing up the conversation again at the worst possible moments.  Others might decide that if they can’t succeed, no one should, so they’ll do their best to stop their friend, just out of spite.  (Not enough to be an antagonist, just enough to be funny and add a bit of conflict.)  Depending on the personality of your character, decide how they would act if opposed.  If they just roll over whenever they face opposition… Perhaps that might fit perfectly with the character, and if it makes things funnier, go for it.  But in general, any character with the tenacity to pursue their goal through an entire story (or stick with the main character through the story) should have a bit more strength than that.  This kind of conflict creates humor.

Characters trying to achieve their goals— that’s sympathetic and proactive, driving up their likability.  But characters trying ridiculously hard to achieve their goals— that’s sympathetic, proactive, and funny.  That’s what you want.  That’s what conflict provides.  And that’s the kind of thing no amount of witty banter will give.

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29 Comments

  1. Interesting. That makes a load of sense and I, once again, never thought about it before. So it kind of ends up creating humor and tension at the same time?

    Right now I’m writing an argument between my MC’s mom and her grandmother. They don’t have the same goal, though–they have opposite goals. Perhaps that’s why it’s not humorous. So, do you think it only/mostly only ends up humorous if they are friends or something and have the same goal? Or is this more versatile?

    …What am I talking about, of course it’s more versatile. I suppose what I mean is, any other examples?

    Reply
    • Indeed.

      That’s exactly the place to use this. It matters less what the goals are— if they’re in conflict, but everyone knows they don’t hate each other, then it can be funny. As long as you handle it right. As for an example, look at any sitcom, basically. Two people you know are friends, in conflict in silly ways. If you want something more specific, I’ll find you an episode to look at.

      Reply
  2. Me? Absolute angel? What?

    Anyway, good post. I’ve honestly never thought about that before… I shall have to try doing this.

    Also, thanks for posting this right when I wanted to procrastinate from my writing. Now maybe I can go back to it…maybe

    Reply
  3. Character based humour… It all leads back to making characters seem real, right? *ponders*

    Reply
  4. Okay. I love this post. I laughed out loud. I look forward to trying this out one day.

    You are getting really good at dissecting humor.

    Yes, I am a perfect angel. It involves laughing when beet-red because I am thoroughly scandalized. And it involves laughing and plotting my snarky come-back when the mild, friendly insults happen.

    Reply
    • I laugh in response to almost anything…I laugh when I’m nervous, when I’m excited, when I’m tired, when I’m surprised, even when I’m scared. I laugh when the situation is extremely awkward. (Like when people sing happy birthday to me.) I may have problems…

      Reply
    • I’m getting close, at least.

      I’ve noticed.

      Reply
  5. John Flanagan is really good at this. Not just with comebacks (though that’s why I’m in love with Halt–his dry, sarcastic wit is the best!), but at bringing in funny moments without falling back onto a gag. (What Ranger’s Apprentice fan doesn’t want to see a full-on three way insult war between Will, Halt, and Horace? That would be the event of the millennium!)

    Reply
  6. This makes so much sense. Makes me think of Toby from Scorpion. A lot of characters use humor to redirect, and a lot of times there’s just a character who’s never serious, and is always looking at the funny side of things.

    Reply
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