First off, I apologise for the image on this. I can assure everyone, neither myself nor my cousin, Milo, wear wigs or orange shirts anymore. We did, however, write comedy together for a number of years, and now he is off doing his own thing on Tiktok — link here!
Anyway, back to the topic of this post…
When we talk about humour in stories, books in particular, it naturally becomes very subjective. You and I will inevitably have different tastes, and that will dictate what kinds of humour will work for us, but I do think there is a way of looking at humour which is a bit more general and easier to apply to our own stories.
I usually break humour down into three categories, separated by their use in the narrative. This is by no means an all-encompassing set of rules, more a general guide which I find useful when considering humour in literature.
The first use of humour is, I think, the most common one, and that is to break or lessen tension in some way. Think of parts in a book where all the pressure is mounting and the story is rising to its peak, you’re completely enthralled by the story and cannot put the book down, even to make that cup of tea your body is crying for. Just as it reaches boiling point, a character says a simple line which immediately brings a smirk to your face, or makes you spit out your drink (which I assume you made with the book in your other hand).
It doesn’t detract from the story, instead it adds something while relaxing you with a bit of humour. I’ve found myself remembering that section of a book more than some of the more important plot points because of the humour; it’s great and when done well really brings another layer to the story. It doesn’t even have to be in the story’s climax to work, I’ve seen it used to great effect during conflicts between friends and co-workers, too!
Two of my favourites for this are both called Amos: Amos Burton from The Expanse (James S.A. Corey), and Amos Trask from The Riftwar Saga (Raymond E. Feist), though they are two wildly different characters.
The second way of using humour is one I particularly enjoy, and that is to help world-build or deliver exposition. It’s a clever way to teach the reader something they need to know in an almost deceptive manner. If you laugh, you remember, and if the thing that made you laugh was important lore, character background, or information then that’s even better!
Two of my favourite examples of this are Bilbo’s narration in The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien) and Arthur Weasley in Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling). Think of Arthur Weasley for a moment, and I’m sure his questioning Harry over the purpose of a rubber duck, or his fascination with just about anything in the Muggle world will come to mind. It’s fun and silly, but in his wonderment you learn more about how detached the wizarding world is from our own, and most importantly, how it differs from ours.
“Excitable little fellow,” said Gandalf, as they sat down again. “Gets funny queer fits, but he is one of the best, one of the best—as fierce as a dragon in a pinch.”
If you have ever seen a dragon in a pinch, you will realize that this was only poetical exaggeration applied to any hobbit, even to Old Took’s great-granduncle Bull-roarer, who was so huge (for a hobbit) that he could ride a horse. He charged the ranks of the goblins of Mount Gram in the Battle of the Green Fields, and knocked their King Golfimbul’s head clean off with a wooden club. It sailed a hundred yards through the air and sent down a rabbit hole and in this way the battle was won and the game of Golf invented at the same moment.The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
I had to include this. It is perhaps my favourite quote from any text, and I’m far from alone in this view. Not only does this take something pretty grim and make it almost whimsical, but it also teaches us about some of the lore of Middle Earth, and it builds on the ideas of the various cultures and races which live there. Dragons, hobbits, goblins, and horses (horses are always funny to me in fantasy).
Fun fact: this is actually how Golf was invented in our world, too. (This is probably not a fact.)
The third way in which humour can be used is to help endear us to a character. Having a laugh is one of the best ways to quickly befriend someone, you probably have a lot of memories with your best friends where you’re laughing about something silly, and there are lots of stories which do the same thing to help build your relationship with the characters.
In The Hobbit it takes you very little time to like the narrator thanks, in part, to his humour. In fact, a lot of Tolkien’s characters are made likeable very quickly through his use of humour and warmth. There are a lot of characters who we love quickly through humour, though it is by no means the only thing that makes them great.
Like I say, humour is subjective, and this is only really focusing on humour when used as an aspect of a story, unlike in books which are outright comedies like one of my recent indie reads, FLIP: Spawn of the Saviours (Conlo Moonpow). There is also something to note when thinking about humour, and that’s from whose perspective the story is told. I think the differences between first and third person narratives with relation to humour warrants a post of its own as it is a separate field of this discussion.
What do you think? Am I on-point, have I missed a few things, or am I completely wrong? Whatever your opinion, I’d love to hear it! Get in touch via social media, email, or by leaving a comment below, and don’t forget to follow to stay up to date with my blog and upcoming projects!
Slow-Roasted Humour: Three WaysTweet
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