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Taking Comedy Seriously

rain wizard by Marton Adam MartonFrom Geoffrey Chaucer to Raymond Chandler—and a lot of people in between—all kinds of writers have used comedy to entertain and inform in their writing. Comedy can form a useful distraction from a darker story, or can take the form of a sly comment on the main action—or it can be the backbone of a novel, depending on how a writer uses it.

In the past, science fiction and fantasy comedy was almost a genre in itself. As well as Terry Pratchett, authors like Robert Rankin and Tom Holt used science fiction and fantasy not just to parody the genre but to comment on the real world. The influence of comedy in speculative fiction is more subtle these days, but you can still see humour in a lot of SFF—even in the grim settings of writers like Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch and David Gunn, who use black comedy to offset the bleakness of their worlds.

Choosing The Right Words

It’s sometimes said that the secret to comedy is timing. On the stage, that’s probably true, but an author can’t decide the speed at which a reader reads their writing. Instead, I think the secret to written comedy is wording. It’s one thing to have an idea for a joke—a pun on a certain word, a slapstick event—but that needs to be depicted in the best way possible. Often that comes down to putting the words in the right order in the sentence, keeping the punchline to the end—writing as if telling a joke out loud.

Chefs by Stephen Stark

There’s a moment in the university comedy Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, where the hero wakes up with a hangover. Amis observes that, “His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum”. Amis could have just said, “His mouth tasted as if a mouse had peed and died in it”, but that’s not as funny. It’s the contrast between the sophisticated wording—latrine, mausoleum, some small creature of the night—and the crude description. It’s funny because it’s true – it captures the gross taste of waking up hungover—but also because it contrasts the high with the low.

Comedy In Characters

Old Friends by KamikazuhComedy is all about contrast—not just in the choice of words, but in the characters themselves. George Orwell (not exactly the first name one thinks of in terms of hilarity, it’s true) pointed out that many stories involve an uptight, well-meaning character and a streetwise, wily sidekick who makes fun of him.

Orwell dates this all the way back to Don Quixote, but you can see this still used in the “new partner” police story, where a by-the-book cop has to work with a man on the edge (Rimmer and Lister in Red Dwarf work quite like this, too). You can see how this would create the potential not just for slapstick, but for satire of the system that produced them both.

Having more than one viewpoint allows the reader to see the situation better, too. When writing the Space Captain Smith books, I was careful that, no matter which of the four lead characters were together at the same time, they could always have an argument, because that potential for conflict generates opportunities for comedy.

Sometimes, in comic writing, it helps to jump from one character’s thoughts to another—this technique, called head-hopping, is generally seen as a bad thing, but is the equivalent of a camera shot taking in different expressions and can be very effective when used sparingly and carefully.

Bar Scence by Rhineville

Just because a character is comical, they’re not automatically contemptible. Take the end of Blackadder Goes Forth, where, after many dodgy and ridiculous attempts to avoid action, the horror of World War I finally catches up with the characters. They are sleazy, stupid, nasty and devious people, but we’ve enjoyed their company, and the possibility of them really dying hits harder because of that. In fact, I think it’s necessary to know when the comedy is becoming too dark or cruel, or when the jokes are making the characters less likeable, not more.

Comedy In Settings

SFF gives a lot of opportunities for comedy in the very strangeness of the setting itself. When the setting is outside reality, things can become really bizarre, with funny or horrible results. Mervyn Peake, in his Gormenghast books, uses his bizarre, eccentric characters for both horror and comedy. In his steampunk novel, Homunculus, James P Blaylock piles up one weird, grotesque event after another until the characters seem to be forever tripping over each other in trying to achieve their outlandish goals. As the action speeds up, both the danger and the absurdity of the story increase.

The Play by Yongsub Noh (YONG)

Some comedy in SFF comes from characters treating farcical or impossible situations seriously. This happens a lot in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. Often, Alice ends up talking in quite a logical way about ridiculous and impossible things. Science fiction and fantasy lend themselves to this logical extrapolation of illogical ideas. My own book God Emperor of Didcot is based on the idea of a planet obsessed with growing and drinking tea, and the absurd rituals that its inhabitants have about “brewing up”. The Communist* peasants in Monty Python and the Holy Grail are comical because they seem to be applying out-of-place dogma in a methodical way. Their argument with King Arthur is funnier because they are so eloquent, even while they seem to be piling up lumps of mud in a grimy field.

Final Thoughts

I'm Still Alive! by theDURRRRIANSometimes I think that comedy isn’t given the respect that it deserves as a style of writing (I’m trying not to say, “Comedy isn’t taken seriously enough”). I think there’s an expectation—at least in the English-speaking world—that a book about important issues is a dour book without much levity.

However, writing comedy is a good exercise for an author, because it forces you to really understand your use of words and characters. You’re not just saying what happened next in the story: you’re saying what happened next in the most entertaining way possible, and that needs a writer to be really alert to language and its effects on the reader. I don’t think that writers should necessarily rush out to write comedy—if your book doesn’t require it, or you don’t want it, it’s probably best to leave it out—but humour is an important aspect of storytelling, and an effective way of making a book even more enjoyable.

*Actually, they’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune. Whatever that is.

Title image by IzzyMedrano.


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