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Writing Tip: Use Humor as Part of Your Character Development

We remember some friends because they tell lame jokes and other friends because they’re guilty of non-stop puns. Perhaps these traits have little or nothing to do with these folks’ jobs, causes, abilities as parents, or the heroic deeds they may perform. Yet, they are one of the ways we know them.

A sense of humor, or the inadvertent habit of doing funny or odd things, can also help readers get to know your characters in a novel or short story.

For example, in my contemporary fantasy novel The Sun Singer, my fiery red-headed character Cinnabar’s favorite phrase is “Holy Bear Puke” and the blustery blacksmith in charge of weapons constantly misuses everyday words. Such traits become “signature traits,” rather like the theme songs that accompany characters in movies. They not only make the characters three-dimensional, but are like comfort food to readers whenever the humor repeats itself randomly through a story.

I thought of the beauty of humor—as a character trait and as a way of suddenly lightening up the tone of a fast-paced or frightening story—when I found veteran author Lisa Goldstein using it in her fantasy The Uncertain Places to show us “something extra” about protagonist Will Taylor and his long-time friend Ben Avery.

As with many people who’ve known each other since childhood, they’ve developed  their own brand of wild-and-crazy repartee. The humor is part of who they are, and Goldstein uses it to good advantage in developing these characters.

For example, Goldstein drops this old Will-and-Ben riff into a dinner-table conversation:

“Will and I are thinking about writing a movie,”  Ben said. “It’s called ‘Theater Closed for Repairs.'”

We’d told this joke before, of course. It was one of the routines we did, our two-man band. People either got it or told us we were idiots. This time Livvy and Maddie laughed, though Mrs. Feierabend looked a little confused.

I like this because it defines everyone at the table. It’s not only typical Will and Ben, but includes the kinds of reactions the reader is coming to expect from Livvy, Maddie, and their mother. Also, Goldstein doesn’t belabor the joke. Some readers won’t get it. Some will smile and move on. Others (like me) will stop and ponder the beauty of the words THEATER CLOSED FOR REPAIRS on a marquee while wondering about the reactions of passersby.

Set in 1971, The Uncertain Places makes frequent counter-culture references. Maddie, for example mentions marching in a protest parade with a group called the Young Socialist Alliance, leading to this exchange with Will:

“Wait a minute,” I said.”You’re a Trotskyite!”

“Trotskyist,” Maddie said. “Yeah, what about it?”

I knew she had radical politics, but I’d had no idea. To me, Trotskyists were like Cubs fans—their team was never going to win, but you had to admiore their loyalty.

Since my mother was a Cubs fan, I have to smile at this, not to mention knowing full well what her (and any other Cubs fan’s) reaction to such a comment would be. Will and Maddie’s conversation occurs on page 34 of the book, but even this early in the story, everything about it is so typical of both Will and Maddie, that I nod as I read it, and think, “Yes, that’s the kind of thing Maddie would say and the kind of thing Will would think—but leave unsaid.”

I’m getting to know and care about the characters of the book, partly because the there are a lot of strange things going on in the Feierabend household and Will, with some help from Ben, is trying to figure out the mystery. The humor doesn’t move the plot forward, but it is a wonderful part of the author’s character development.

A Word of  Caution

As you consider using a bit of humor to develop the characters in your stories, a word of caution. The humor needs to fit the character. It needs to be just what the reader would expect from him or her. Mrs. Feierabend never would come up with the THEATER CLOSED FOR REPAIRS gag any more than she would burst forth with a string old genie jokes or flirty stories filled with sexual innendos. She’s not that kind of person.

My thought is: make the humor fit and don’t run it into the ground turning it into the kind of flaw in the story reviewers like to point out. A quick laugh, and then get on with the plot.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of four novels from Vanilla Heart Publishing, including the recently release contemporary fantasy “Sarabande.”

  1. I can’t imagine relating to anything that didn’t have an element of humor somewhere in it. Without humor, there’s no pressure relief valve.

    November 22, 2011
    • Very true. Plus, humor can be a ruse, especially in movies where everything looks fine and things are going great and suddenly, WHAM, the bad guys strike.


      November 22, 2011
  2. Smoky Zeidel #

    Being humorous is something you either can or cannot do. It’s not a slight to a person if they can’t write humor; it’s just something that is difficult to learn. I wonder if any studies have been done on that–whether you can learn to be funny? Good advice here, my friend.

    November 22, 2011
    • Thank you, Smoky. As for writing humor, I think you’re right. Yet, I do think that almost any good author can think of something funny for a character to say or do. As for “studies,” that sounds like a project for you during the holiday season.


      November 22, 2011

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