Friday, December 14, 2007

Question On Making a Humorous Character Believable

On December 11, I asked the question "What techniques are import to you?" and I asked you to submit questions you might have on your work in progress. This comment from Mary appeared on the entry. Mary is a freelance writer and thus has found time to work on her novel. She said, "The entire novel (over 200,000 words so far) is in the first person. I find this pretty tricky since the person isn't someone super-noteworthy as far as language goes. I mean not a person that stands out like "Delores" by Stephen King. Her humor and accent were incredible.

Mary’s Question:
How am I going to make this character completely believable without adding in some particular accent or humor? It’s not it doesn’t have a little humor here and there, but nothing that would classify it as a comedy. It’s not horror and not exactly sci-fi, but more alternative.

Gail’s Response:
Before I address your main question, let me make some general comments.
1. A book that isn’t complete and is already at 200,000 word count is a problem. Most publishers would not be interested in a book that long. Books are usually no more than 120,000 to 150,000 words and most are much shorter. This is especially true for a first time author. Books are extremely expensive to print, and this would mean a publisher would need to have much faith in you as a writer to take a book of this length for a first novel. I’m sure John Grisham’s books are much shorter than 200,000 words.

2. A book must be in a genre. I know that is disappointing sometimes, but to approach an agent or publisher with the words "my book is meant to be humorous, not horror and not exactly sci-fi, but more alternative, is a problem. If you can’t define the genre of your book, you’ve lost a sale immediately. I know that sounds harsh – but a book must draw in a fan base. If you’re going for a chick-lit comedy or a sci-fi, or a horror novel, or a humorous women’s fiction, you’ve designated a genre. The publisher knows what you’re writing and so do you. Any speculative or alternative genre must be amazingly written and with someone in the know helping to back the book to make it through an agent to reach an editors desk. I don’t mean to sound doom and gloom, but that’s the truth about writing fiction.

Finally, the answer to the question. Humor comes from the writers voice – this means a particular way the author has of looking at life — and the then the ability to apply that technique to a character. Humor is difficult to write since everyone finds different things funny. Slapstick isn’t what I enjoy. I much prefer humor through language, for example: subtext, puns, the unexpected twist of a punch line. That’s what makes me laugh. So writing humor is very difficult.

First person humor means a character must be created with a quirky way of looking at life. This person must see life differently than you and I see it. He will view something we take for granted and give it an amazing spin that causes us to see the humorous side of a situation. Think of people like Ellen Degeneres or Jerry Seinfeld. Who can go on and on with a monologue about why a lightbulb is slipped into flimsy cardboard while nose hair trimmers are bound in unpenetrateable plastic?

Comedy takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary from the viewpoint of a character. Comedy is taking a negative situation—something we all fear happening to us—and exaggerating it and then giving it to a character who seems to have these kinds of things befall them. Think of Lucy and her Vegavitamin commercial or her day in the chocolate factory. This is what makes humor.

Humor is created by finding funny words to help us visualize the action. I did a scene once with a bat flying into a candy store kitchen. When the heroine walks in, the hero has a metal pot on his head, swinging a spatula into the air. When she realizes what’s going on, she grabs a box and throws it over her head and joins him with a large wooden spoon. She describes him as sashaying across the room, flailing his spatula. Words like sashaying and flailing give us a humorous picture when we couple it with a macho man wearing a cooking pot and swinging a spatula.

Mixups or misunderstandings can also provide humor. In my book, Over Her Head, a young woman is forced to go horseback riding and asks for a gentle horse, but when she climbs on, she senses this horse isn’t gentle. The high school students she’s riding with make so much noise she misses the horse’s name. She hears "Furry" and thinks the name is more fitting for a gerbil. Her antics with the horse are laughable, and as the horse breaks away from the pack and heads for the barn, she overhears the students yelling, "I wish I was riding Fury." And the ride continues.

Language is important. Using words that are out of the ordinary, words to describe a character that makes us smile—a macho man sashaying, a petite young woman let loose a piercing whistle for a cab, a child who waddles toward his mother in a public place with his pacifier nipple shoved in his nose. The unexpected, words that are vivid—both nouns and verbs. These pictures and this language must come through the first person POV as the character experiences and witnesses the happenings around her. It’s not easy. You can try some of the techniques above, then add a prayer that someone thinks its funny.

Note to Mary: If I missed the point, and you just want to know about making character's believable, I'll be address this right after the first of the year.

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