Here I am, staring at my screen, thinking about how to write a post about character development as it relates to funny books/funny characters. I’m kind of stumped, because I’m not sure I do this much thinking about actually writing my characters, but I guess I must do some, at least subconsciously, because I do end up writing about people and despite my wishes and prayers, books don’t really write themselves.
So what makes people funny? There are a few different kinds of funny. First, there’s physical comedy—think Kramer from Seinfeld (am I dating myself here?). Characters like him barely have to talk and we find them funny because of their hilariously exaggerated way of doing things. The only drawback here is that physical comedy works really well on the screen, but can be tough to pull off on the page. Also, it can get tiring to read, so I would use it sparingly. Imagine if Kramer was a main character who was in every scene—we’d get tired of his constant antics pretty quickly.
Other people are just naturally funny. Jerry Seinfeld is a very funny guy. He’s quirky himself, but has a lot of great observations about other people (which makes him a great comedian). He’s sarcastic and has something to say about everything, even though he acknowledges he’s not perfect. I think that mix of judgement and almost humble realization that he’s not above reproach (giving him that tiny bit of necessary vulnerability) makes for a character who is fun to watch on the screen.
Some people are funny without meaning to be. I think you know where I’m going with this, because yes, here comes another Seinfeld reference: George Costanza. Everything he does is inadvertently funny despite his attempts to just live his life like a normal guy. There is nothing normal about George—he’s a caricature of the worst humanity has to offer. He’s the loser, the guy no one wants to be (or be with)—he’s dishonest, lazy, manipulative, self-serving and if that wasn’t bad enough, he’s unapologetic about all of it. He knows what he is, but seems to have no interest in improving himself. He’s the perfect anti-hero and we love to laugh at his foibles. Maybe it’s schadenfreude, but whatever it is, he’s very watchable.
One of the big distinctions with these kinds of characters is that with Kramer and George, we’re laughing at them, whereas most of the time, with Jerry, we’re laughing with him. He’s the straight man, the one who brings it all together*. He’s the one you want as your main character. Jerry on the show may not be the exact guy you want as your main character, since he’s also selfish and manipulative, but let’s not split hairs. You want the guy you laugh with and can relate to, at least on some level, to be the one in the spotlight.
Now, I should mention that for me, while I’m always writing a funny book, I may not be writing specifically about a funny person or even about a topic that is inherently funny. How people react to situations can make the difference between a gut-buster and crickets chirping. Think about a really funny situation (either from a book or real life) and how people reacted. Would it have been as funny if the people involved had behaved differently or had done the opposite?
For example, in my book, SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE, the main character, Lilah is not what I would call a naturally funny person (her bestie, Alex is way funnier). But Lilah gets into some embarrassing situations that end up being very funny. In one, she’s in a cafe, trying to convince her crush Andy that she can talk to ghosts. Andy’s (dead) father suggests Lilah mention she knows Andy is wearing Spiderman boxer shorts, something she would obviously never know on her own. This is a mortifying idea to Lilah, but when Andy refuses to believe her and is walking out of the cafe, Lilah hollers out (so everyone in the place hears) that she knows about his underwear. She’s desperate to convince him, but loses sight of where she is and what will happen if she blurts this out in public. If she had just let Andy go, the scene would not end on a funny note, though Lilah would have been spared some humiliation. Though where’s the fun in that?
So, things to remember:
- What are you trying to write—funny characters? A funny book? Both? Know the distinction.
- Are you laughing with your character or at them?
- Are you using physical humor and if so, are you using it sparingly? Read scenes aloud and you’ll know quickly if they’re getting onerous and clunky.
- Have you given thought to how your characters react in situations? Is it true to the character’s personality and what would happen if they reacted differently?
*And if you’re thinking I’ve missed Elaine, she’s funny, too, sort of as a female version of Jerry (maybe that’s why they never worked out as a couple).
If you want a great example of one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever watched that was pure physical comedy genius (albeit non-Seinfeld) click HERE.
Joanne Levy’s love of books began at a very early age. Being the youngest and the only female among four children, she was often left to her own devices and could frequently be found sitting in a quiet corner with her nose in a book. Now that she’s a grown up, Joanne is most often at her computer, channeling her younger self into the books she writes for kids who enjoy reading in quiet corners. Joanne still lives in Ontario with her husband and kids of the furred and feathered variety. You can follow Joanne on Twitter or find her on Facebook.
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Joanne is giving away a copy of her novel, Small Medium at Large, to one person who comments on this post! All who leave comments are eligible.