I love reading older literature because I learn so much about how to write literature today from how it was written in the past. One thing I am often impressed with is how older writers like G. K. Chesterton were so good at writing humor. Chaucer and Shakespeare were skilled in this too, as was Jules Verne (whose novel Around the World in Eighty Days has one of my favorite comedic scenes).
Writing good humor in novels is a challenging thing. I think it is especially challenging today since we are so used to humor that has a visual or acoustical component, such as movies, stand-up comedians, funny radio DJ’s, and Internet memes. Of course, visual and acoustical dimensions in humor are not a modern innovation by any means, but I think today we are more saturated with humor in these dimensions than people have been in the past.
Right now I am reading G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who was Thursday, which is a book full of brilliantly executed humor.
There is one particular line I wanted to write about from the second chapter. It is a hilarious remark from the character Syme that made me laugh out loud (which I don’t often do when reading literature).
Now, a joke explained is not a funny joke; so, if you want to experience the humor for yourself, you will need to actually read it in its full context. (It is near the beginning of the book in the second chapter.) Here I only want to analyze the line and show how G. K. Chesterton made it funny.
In the first chapter, Chesterton sets up these two characters Syme and Gregory—two poets—whose personalities and aesthetic beliefs are opposite each other. Syme is a calm, elegant man who believes the beauty of poetry is found in order. Gregory, on the other hand, is a frenzied, impetuous man who believes the beauty of poetry is found in chaos.
Both characters are over-the-top in their respective personalities, and the tension between them leaps off the pages. Through their dialogue, Chesterton stresses above all that Gregory is an anarchist, whereas Syme is a man of law and order.
In the second chapter, Gregory leads Syme to a secret hideout where he has to perform a certain memorized procedure in order to enter. Here is the funny exchange:
“I must ask you to forgive me all these formalities,” said Gregory; “we have to be very strict here.”
“Oh, don’t apologise,” said Syme. “I know your passion for law and order.”
What is truly impressive about this is that there is nothing in the dialogue tag for Syme’s reply that would suggest he is being humorous or even sarcastic. The tag simply reads “said Syme.” It doesn’t say “and with a sarcastic tone” or “with a sly look in his eyes” or “with a chuckle bubbling from his lips.” There is really nothing at all in the dialogue tag that would signal to the reader this is a funny, sarcastic line, and yet it clearly is.
How did Chesterton communicate humor and sarcasm without any exposition from the narrator? In short, he let the characters do the talking.
We know this line is sarcastic because of how he has developed the characters and their relationship up to this point:
- Syme is a witty fellow, and it is very easy to follow him from wit to sarcasm.
- Gregory is a passionate anarchist, and it is hard to imagine that Syme is serious when he says, “I know your passion for law and order.”
- Syme and Gregory have a tense relationship right from the start, and so sarcasm is right at home in their dialogue with each other (especially coming from a witty man like Syme).
The reason Syme’s line above is so funny and sarcastic is because the context demands that interpretation, specifically the context of who the characters are and how their relationship has developed.
What writers today can learn from this example is that good written humor proceeds naturally out of the characters and situations in a story.
This does not mean that good humor is an accident or that humor should not be “contrived.” After all, in some ultimate sense, everything in a novel is “contrived” and intended by the author. By “naturally,” I mean simply that the narrator does not need to explain the humor because the humor is obvious from the context (especially from the context of who the characters are).
So if you want to write good humor, the first step is simply to write good, interesting characters and write interesting stories that put them into situations ripe for comedy. The humor may still be “contrived” in an ultimate sense, but it will feel more natural and convincing to the readers, as it did for me in the example from Chesterton above.
One last thing I wanted to mention is that good characters are not necessarily “well-rounded” or “realistic” characters. In many literary classics like The Man Who was Thursday, the characters are more exaggerated than realistic.
The trend nowadays is to write complex characters—flawed heroes and redemptive villains. There is nothing wrong with this, and there are many compelling characters who were written to fit these molds. However, there is also nothing wrong with writing simple characters and exaggerated characters.
I think opening yourself up as a writer to these sorts of characters will also help you write good humor. Sometimes real life is funnier than fiction. But fiction is never actually real life, and we need not constrain fiction to behave like it is. Becoming comfortable with exaggerated characters is an excellent way to create contexts that are ripe for humorous interactions like this one from Chesterton.
Here’s a quote from Roald Dahl about creating exaggerated characters. He was a master at this. The focus of this quote is on writing for children, but I think it applies outside of children’s fiction as well:
When you’re writing a book, with people in it as opposed to animals, it is no good having people who are ordinary, because they are not going to interest your readers at all. Every writer in the world has to use the characters that have something interesting about them and this is even more true in children’s books. I find that the only way to make my characters really interesting to children is to exaggerate all their good or bad qualities, and so if a person is really nasty or bad or cruel, you make them very nasty, very bad, very cruel. If they are ugly, you make them extremely ugly. That I think is fun and makes an impact.