Humor in Fiction

by Brandi Reissenweber

Humor is one of the delights of fiction, but it is difficult to successfully execute. Writers are able to capture the other sides of life—tragedy, sadness, drama—more effectively than the funny sides of life. But let’s not forget: life is funny. It’s absurd and strange and hilarious at least as often as it is tragic. But writers—whether they don’t want to or don’t know how—don’t send in the clowns all that often.

Some writers who scoff at humor as somehow less engaging or less—gasp!—worthy aren’t seeing past the Sunday funnies and some of the thinner versions of humorous essays. You can achieve the complexities of theme and depth of character and at the same time add humor to make the story even more effective. For example, Melissa Bank’s collection The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing includes topics like loneliness, a father's death, and an abusive relationship. Bank uses humor within these darker topics to create a unique look at the characters’ experiences and a deeper understanding of how the characters are affected. 

Some writers don’t attempt humor because they perceive it as an intuitive art, something a few writers are simply born with. This is partially true: some people have a flair for comedy and seeing the humor in situations more adeptly than others. Yet most people aren’t entirely without humor and you don’t have to be a seasoned humorist in order to take what humor you see in the world and translate it onto the page.

Humor, at its core, surprises the reader by subverting what is common. This sense of incongruity is what lies at the foundation of humor. Surprising the reader with the unexpected, the bizarre, an unlikely connection, or inappropriate action are all wonderful ways to construct humor. Irony exposes the incongruity of everyday life, letting the reader in on the half-truths, craftiness, and self deceptions that take place within a character. Broadly, irony is the recognition of a reality that is different from what is presented or the way something appears. Irony usually involves a kind of reversal of either expectation or meaning.

In Lorie Moore’s novel Who Will Run Frog Hospital?, the main character, Berie, is at Bible camp. She has lied to the Reverend in order to be re-baptized (an irony in itself) and the fact that she’s sought out this experience and wants to participate in it creates the expectation that it will be a spiritual moment, ceremonious at least. She stands in her bathing suit in waist high water, says her acceptance, then:

There were pains and spasms in my feet and legs, and then the Reverend’s arm came round the small of my back and he whispered, “Lean back, my dear.” I thought of my back dives, squinted my eyes, and pushed off with my feet. But I pushed too hard, as if I were doing a real dive, and the leap back brought Reverend Filo staggering back with me . . . “Dear girl!” exclaimed the Reverend, who was also coughing, his hair sopping. “You just lifted off like a rocket.”

We expect this to go one way, but instead it becomes something odd and awkward. The aura of ceremony diminishes as the Reverend is pulled into the water with her, coming up sputtering. Yet, amongst that strangeness, Berie still experiences a powerful moment, even though it is not the moment she had hoped for.

In Bank’s “The Best Thing That Could Happen to a Suburban Girl,” Henry and Jane are in the hospital room alone with their father who is living only because of the machinery that is supporting his life:

Once everyone had left, I sat in the chair beside my father’s bed again. I thought of Kafka's story “The Metamorphosis,” and how Gregor’s sister knew to feed him garbage once he’d become a cockroach.

I tried to explain to Henry that this was the transcendent act I wanted to do now.

He said, “Please don't feed Dad garbage.”

“I don't know what Dad wants me to do,” I said. “I just know I’m not doing it.” Henry took my hand and held it.

Hospitals are sad and serious places, but there is an element of humor in this exchange. It takes the expected tenor of one place (hospital = serious) and inserts a completely different tenor (forcing dad to eat garbage = absurd), creating an interesting and subtle moment of irony. While it’s humorous, it’s not necessarily laugh-out-loud funny, or even chuckle-under-your-breath funny. It’s just a moment of humor, a bright spot, in this setting that holds connotations of sadness, sickness, and death.

Whatever you write about—from Bible camp to the death of a father and beyond—consider how moments of humor can strengthen your work.

This article originally appeared in Letterpress.