Monday, April 2, 2012

Character-Based Humor

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

Recently I was asked for tips on writing humor.  My books are billed as humorous cozies and the person emailing me asked if I could share some techniques. blog20

I think that’s a tough subject to tackle, actually.  In person, I have a more dry sense of humor—I’m definitely not that much of a funny person unless I’m telling a story.  When I’m writing, I’m usually working with a particular type of humor…character based.  Let me use Saturday as an example (and we all have days like this.)

I’ve mentioned before that my ten year old daughter is absolutely obsessed with horses.  I don’t share the obsession, but I’m happy to facilitate her horse fixes (to a point!  My husband and I keep insisting we won’t become horse owners.)

She was set on going to the Carolina Cup steeplechase race on Saturday, so I bought a couple of tickets and packed a lunch and we were off.

I knew, though, that the entire situation was fraught with danger.  She was so determined to watch the horses.  This meant that the universe would conspire for her not to see the horses.

And, sure enough, problems arose right away.  The website directions from Charlotte to Camden, SC weren’t clear and took us off in the wrong direction.  I finally turned on my GPS and got us heading in the right direction.  And we ended up getting there fairly late and ended up having to park with the college kids who’d come with their kegs.

Because we’d parked so far away, it was about 3/4 of a mile to reach the main course.  We had to cross the infield and stamp through the tall grass.  As we got closer to the course, the spectators grew older and banquets were laid out with fine silver.  This was all ignored by my daughter, intent on the horses. 

We got as close as we possibly could.  I squinted at the grandstand and asked a staff member, “Can we sit there?  I see seats.  My daughter wants to see the horses.”

“If you have $650 a person.”

I decided we would just get as close as we could aside from being in the grandstand.

Of course, I’d forgotten to bring the folding chairs from the trunk.  I told her to stay put and not to talk to strangers and I trotted back the 3/4 mile to the car.  As I was returning, still running, with the chairs, they closed off the gates to the infield I needed to cross…because the horses were running through.  This, naturally, added another 20 minutes to my trip back…and when I returned she told me in exasperation that a crowd of people had come up to ask her if she’d “lost her mommy.”  They wouldn’t stop worrying over her and coddling her and she’d had a difficult time craning her head to see the course.

Between the bacchanalian shenanigans of the college students who occasionally staggered up to see the horses and blocked our view, friendly and well-meaning spectators who tried striking up conversation with my doll-like-diminutive and grimly focused daughter, I was hiding a smile most of the day.  If I’d been writing a book, these would have been the basic components for a humorous scene: the serious little girl, ferociously intent on the horses and the world working against her.

Character based humor is my favorite kind of humor.  It’s easy to write and doesn’t only create humor—it also makes for conflict (a gentler sort) and character development, too.

Even easier is a comic foil for the protagonist—someone who will put the character in these humorous situations on a regular basis: what we saw in The Odd Couple with Felix and Oscar.

What made Lucy and Ethel’s struggle in the candy factory so funny?  One reason was that they were so earnest about doing well but completely unsuited for the job they were facing. Because they were so serious about making a paycheck, the day’s unraveling and their horror at it, made the situation funnier and funnier.

This is as close as I can come to explaining my approach to humor, but I’m interested in hearing yours.  Do you write humorous scenes into your books?  Have any tips?