Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire

New Release Review

Livestream Chat with Fonda Lee, Andrea G. Stewart, and K. S. Villoso

Fonda Lee, Andrea G. Stewart, and K. S. Villoso

Livestream Chat

Blade’s Edge and Traitor’s Hope by Virginia McClain – Cover Redesign Reveal

Blade’s Edge and Traitor’s Hope

Cover Redesign Reveal


Balancing Wit & Grit In Fantasy Fiction

The Mender of Soles

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a tragic play fraught with intrigue, betrayal, and murder that makes us question the very foundations of human nature.

It starts with a joke.

the-globe-theatre4To be more precise, the first scene is a series of puns in which a nobleman is made ridiculous to the audience by a cobbler who refers to himself as a ‘mender of soles’ (which, of course, the nobleman hears as ‘souls’.) It’s a remarkably clever scene that no doubt set the audience of the Globe Theatre in 1599 falling out of their seats from laughter. But what follows is the destruction of friendships, the breakdown of civil society, and an unending series of killings until the world of the play becomes utterly desolate. So why on earth does Shakespeare start with a joke?

Using Humour To Bring The Audience Into The Story

People in sixteenth-century England lived in an era where war, disease, and crime were all a part of daily life. Imagine what that was like – knowing that those you cared about might well get sick and die at any moment, and you yourself could be called up to war and never come home. Now imagine sitting in the theatre and watching a couple of poncy actors get up during the first act and proclaim, ‘O, I am slain!’ You’d probably think it was ridiculous. In fact, you might even break out laughing – for all the wrong reasons. So Shakespeare used a series of opening puns to set the audience at ease. He convinces us, however briefly, that despite the play being titled The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, everything is going to be okay. Then he drops a little murder and mayhem on us and makes us squirm.

For modern writers there’s an almost mandatory convention of starting in medias res (“in the middle of things.”) Authors are expected to start with a bang – often as not from a bullet leaving the barrel of a gun. While it’s true that this gets the action started right away, it can often come at the cost of making the violence feel trite. After all, we had no particular reason to care about Mr. Smith, so why should we care that he’s just been shot? Or, conversely, that the hero or heroine just saved him?

Man-DownDeath on its own isn’t dramatic. Any remotely informed human being is aware that countless deaths are taking place all over the world all the time.. In fact, several people have died since you started reading this. And yet, most of us aren’t reacting to those deaths at all because we don’t have a context in which to feel the sense of loss that those deaths entail. Loss, and the possibility of loss, are the real basis of drama. It’s only when we sense jeopardy for our characters – the fear that they’re about to lose something precious – that we become engaged in their drama.

Modern fantasy has, for the most part, taken a turn towards the darker side of our imaginations. This is natural and reflects our need to explore our anxieties about the modern world in a different setting, just as noir novels and films did in the 1940’s and 50’s. But as in Shakespeare’s time, the audience isn’t always going to buy it if you just start with intentionally manipulative melodrama. Humour allows us to open with the characters in a dark place but still have the sense that there is something meaningful for them to lose.

Using Humour To Reveal Character

Another benefit of using humour inside of darker stories is as a way of revealing character. The spectrum of topics, forms, and styles of humour is so vast that the jokes we tell others reveal a great deal about us. Is your character a sexist pig who uses gutter humour in a way that unintentionally demeans those around him? Or perhaps he or she is a prude whose sense of humour lets us see how naive they are about the world around them. Think of a time that you told a joke when first meeting a potential love interest only to realise it was utterly inappropriate. The choice of joke – and the way you cringe at the memory of it – reveal a great deal about your background and sensibilities.

Traitors-Blade-1Using my own novel, Traitor’s Blade, as an example (if only because I know why I put things where I did), each of the three main characters has a different sense of humour that reveals something about them to the reader. Brasti loves nothing better than a good bawdy joke. He uses them as a way of reasserting a sense of normalcy about the world. As long as he still thinks it’s funny, life must be okay. Kest, on the other hand, is well known for never telling jokes. That’s why, when he suddenly tells one, we know something profound is happening to him. And finally, Falcio, who usually prides himself on his dry, sophisticated wit, finds himself at a loss when other characters point out how demeaning his cleverness can be.

Using Humour To Intensify Dark Scenes

Not every use of humour in a novel needs to be funny. Bitter humour – the joke told by your character that is never intended to produce a laugh – can actually emphasize the sense of loss the reader feels. For me this tends to work best towards the end of the second act of a novel when things have fallen apart and the characters haven’t figured out how to move forward. Black humour tends to pin us inside of a particular moment – forcing us to feel how dangerous the situation has become.

In Traitor’s Blade, Falcio does this in the dungeons of Rijou when he refers to his unnamed torturer as “Ugh” because that’s what comes out of Falcio’s mouth whenever the torturer hits him. It’s not a funny joke – rather, it amplifies our understanding that Falcio is at the end of his rope.

Conversely, sometimes you might want to use humour as a way of revealing hidden reserves of strength within the character. You can show them in the depths of their worst moment and just when it seems they’re about to drown in it, they say something that, while not actually funny, reveals a desire to make things better.

Using Humour To Heal The Story World

Don_Quixote_de_La_Mancha_by_randisMany of the classic models for explaining narrative structure, such as the Hero’s Journey, emphasize the notion of returning the world to order at the end of the story. In fact, the hero’s role in the story is often to re-establish the natural order that had been shattered by outside events. But in dark fantasy there are usually profound consequences for the actions taken by the hero – ones that prevent us from having a traditional “happy ending” in which everything is back to normal (and in which ‘normal’ is a good thing.) Humour can be a tool for showing that, even though the external world has changed, there is still the potential for healing.

When I wrote the ending to Traitor’s Blade, I felt as if I needed to bring my characters back to life somehow. They’d gone through all kinds of hell and had even more of it to come. But I wanted there to be a sense of resolution – that they had come through the darkest parts of their world and were still themselves. So just at the point when the characters’ relationships to one another feel irreparably broken, Brasti tells a joke. It’s a terrible joke, really, but it’s so positively Brasti-like that the other characters can’t help but laugh – and that laughter starts to take them over. It provides an exit point from the story that enables the reader to derive their own sense of what the future might hold.

It’s important to note that what I’ve set out here isn’t intended to be a blueprint – every storyteller has to shape the tonal aspects of their worlds in the way that best suits them. However it’s worth remembering that humour is as essential a human quality as love or fear or anger, and as such, it has a place in even the darkest of tales.


Note: Check back next week when we will have a review for Sebastien’s Traitor’s Blade, which we are predicting could well be debut of 2014!



  1. […] Sebastien de Castell explains why you need both in a very nice post at Fantasy Faction. […]

  2. Avatar Davieboy says:

    Great article; hungry to read your book – I have a signed first edition but I want an audiobook blast it!

  3. Avatar Lucy Hounsom says:

    Thanks for a clever and insightful article. Will take some of these points away to consider in my own writing, though I readily admit that the humour in Traitor’s Blade is a bit sharper than my own 😉 A brilliant book.

  4. Great post. I usually stay away from attempting humor in my writing because I’m not a funny person. Would you suggest trying it anyway, for people who can’t make jokes to save their lives?

    • I don’t think it’s so much about telling jokes as it is about showing the way the characters attempt to use humour to deal with what’s going on around them. I doubt most of the ‘funny’ lines in Traitor’s Blade would actually work as jokes outside of the book. But in the context of the particular situation that the characters are in, the things they say are unexpected. So I suppose my answer is, yes, try it anyway – you never know what will come out.

  5. Awesome article. You’re right on– you’ve gotta have some light to make a shadow. I always thought Orwell’s 1984 could use a little humor injected. I’m 100% serious. One of the tricky things for dark-fantasy-with-humor though is how to pepper in humor without it taking over your book’s pitch. I haven’t figured that one out. A pitch is so short I feel like it’s hard to make it both dark and comedic at the same time, like it has to be one or the other.

    Anyway great article, and I can’t wait to read the review of your book on here next week!

  6. Avatar Paul says:

    Great post. Interesting to get your perspective on some of the more interesting aspect of the book.
    I loved the humour peppered throughout Traitors Blade and the darker side of the book took me slightly by surprise (not in a bad way mind you). Falcio’s internal monologues really do cover a wide range of wit and humour over the book and he’ll become a firm Fan favourite.

  7. Thanks Bradley. One way to find the right balance is to treat humour within the story as an arc – much like a plot or character arc. With the Greatcoats series, I find myself wanting humour to be an entry and an exit point for the world; using it primarily in the first act and then right at the end. I use it sparingly in the second and third acts (I write using a four act structure) because that’s where the tension generally needs to keep increasing. Anyway, hope you enjoy the book!

  8. Avatar Byron says:

    I still vividly remember the cameo shot in Way of shadows with Vi and Kylar. Kylar makes a “note to self” while defending his very life. I can visualize him looking directly into the observer’ eyes! Brent Weeks is exceptionally good at sarcastic humor.

  9. […] Oh, and finally, finally, if you’re still not convinced you should give this one a shot then perhaps Sebastien’s very excellent article, BALANCING WIT & GRIT IN FANTASY FICTION, can convince you. Check it out here! […]

Leave a Comment