Posted by: kshayes513 | April 18, 2009

How Do I Make It Funny?

How do you put humor into an imaginary world?

Beginners and hacks think that the only requirement for humor in any setting is a few wisecracking characters who fire off lots of clever insults.  You can see this in any third-rate comedy, and in a lot of amateur writing.

Even in real world comedy, wisecracking characters are only funny if they and their situations are carefully constructed. Much of what makes us laugh arises from our own cultural definitions, so you can’t just have your invented world characters sling the same sort of wisecracks you hear in the latest comedy.  Cutting and pasting real world humor into your invented world either won’t be funny, or it won’t fit the world, or both.

Imaginary world humor has to accomplish 2 things:

First, the humor must belong solidly in the context of the world. Whatever your characters are doing or saying that’s funny has to come from their own personalities, their own story, and their own culture.

Second, it still has to be funny to your audience, who is not from that culture. Here’s where the worldbuilding comes in: you have to provide enough information and cultural understanding to let your audience see instantly why this speech or moment is unexpected, ironic, or otherwise hilarious.

This is also why it’s much easier to put humor into a realistic fantasy or SF setting–our world with only a few small changes–than it is to make a sweeping futuristic epic funny. In realistic spec fic, you’re already working within a familiar cultural context.

I’m still trying to achieve those 2 steps in my holiday story.  Yes, I started it over 2 months ago. The first draft tried to turn into a serious family drama. The second was lighter, but was only funny to the characters. Now I’m back to rough draft experimenting with the characters and narrative voice. I’m also spending some time analyzing other stories that I’ve found funny. Sorry to say, not many of these are secondary world  SF or fantasy. Didn’t I say its hard to pull off?

(I could stop here and list some my favorite funny spec fic stories. Maybe I’ll post one after I’ve done more research.)

You may well ask why I’m trying to change a story that wants to be serious, instead of letting the story evolve naturally. Here’s why:

The darker the events of the universe you’re depicting, the more important humor may be, just to give the audience a break, a little gleam of light in the profound darkness. And the longer the story, the more important this is. I have often abandoned stories and authors who dive into unrelenting grim darkness. And every world that I really love has at least some humor lurking in it somewhere. Even that miserable, treacherous wreck of a hobbit, Gollum is funny sometimes, or we wouldn’t be able to stand being around him.

I confess, I also have a more selfish reason: humor seems a lot more fun to write. I’m pretty sure the Foglios are having the time of their lives writing Girl Genius! I may never achieve hilarious, but I think its important to try at least for a little lightness now and then.

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