"It began on a Sunday, when a rotten oyster entered into a violent disagreement with some part of my father’s digestive tract."
Thus opens my 2012 NaNoWriMo novel, Ikarus; the story of one young recluse's attempts to unravel an ever-darkening conspiracy in a city on the verge of anarchy. I've been having a delightful time dissecting, diverting and making a wonderful mess of the interweaving strands in the narrative, pulling them all together and sending them all shooting off in different directions to keep the reader guessing. The stakes are very real, and very high, for all the characters involved. And not everybody is telling everything they know.
What better place to open it than with a declaration of the evils of seafood?
Comedy is wonderful stuff. Shakespeare knew it, as did Oscar Wilde, Alexandre Dumas, and a thousand and one other iconic authors. Today, authors like Terry Pratchett and Jasper Fforde are renown for their skill with parody and the comic.
Why? Because, to me at least, it's one of the best indicators of what makes a good book.
Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold your flaming clouds, trumpets and biscuits of wrath for a moment. I'm not saying that books geared specifically towards comedy are the best sort - far from it. What I mean is that, because comedy is a theme that can be used and exploited in so many different ways, its inclusion is so easy and has so much potential that its use can really enhance a book.
Not all books, seemingly, have much of a place for comedy. My favourite series this year, George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, is a highly political, very bloody, and at times downright horrifying series. But despite - and, arguably, because of - this, the comic moments are really important. I doubt I'd have survived the events of A Storm of Swords without the occasional sarcastic remark from Tyrion Lannister to cheer me up.
Very dark books, in particular, can often benefit from the humanity that dashes of humour can bring - it'll certainly help to keep the readers from calling the priest to exorcise the thing because of the psychological damage it's doing them. But genres can also benefit from the counterpoint, because humour has a fairly universal appeal. Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson books first got my attention because I liked the clever use of humour, rather than the premise (which didn't, surprisingly, impress me all that much). Humour in an individual character can also help their appeal to the audience. I personally have had to exploit this with a particular character in Ikarus, because I'm pretty sure his general lack of morals, empathetic callousness, and lack of opportunities for any real exposition of his nature could otherwise render him rather unpleasant, which is not my intention.
Note: I don't believe characters should all be pushed towards likeability, however. But that's an entirely different post.
Furthermore, humour does not have to undermine the tone of a novel. Got a gritty, fast-paced, slightly racy sci-fi? Why not use some naughty innuendos? Or maybe something a little more dramatic, with spies and explosions and interesting interrogation methods - some dry wit or wordplay might not be out of place here.
Humour can allow for real empathetic engagement with the story and its denizens. Conversely, it can also make for some of the saddest moments. The character who tries to make the best of a disaster with a joke even they know is awful is sure to tug at someone's heartsrings. Also, characters who use humour in a perverse way - villain and anti-heroes, especially - can be made even creepier and more repulsive. And what better way to make that irritating side-character even more annoying than by imbuing them with delusions of comic genius? Even better when it backfires.
Human beings, for the most part, enjoy humour - and that applies to your characters just as much as your readers. You can use whatever sort of humour you like, and you can add it in whatever amount and to whatever degree you like. Not every book has to be a Good Omens, where every other sentence contains something that brings out an inhuman degree of mirthful snorting.
What about you guys? Do you have a preferred type of humour you like to put in your writing? Do you even like to use humour at all? Leave a comment and let me know!
~ Charley R