The Benefit of Humor in Fiction

by Josh Sippie

For many, being a serious writer may mean writing deep, dark explorations of the human consciousness. No laughter need apply.

The venerable Martin Amis, in his book Inside Story, blames this on “the intellectual glamour of gloom…the idea that sullen pessimism is a mark of high seriousness.”

Yet you may find humor is a crucial step in helping you become that writer. Even the gloomiest writers of all time, like Samuel Beckett, couldn’t have established such dreariness without some degree of humor, like having characters live in trash cans or waiting on someone whom they know will never turn up.

Let’s start with a bit of science. First off, consider that Albert Einstein attributed his genius to having a childlike sense of humor. Then, also consider that numerous studies have been conducted that prove that a sense of humor is often attributed to people with higher IQs. So while you’re trying to sound smart with fancy words, you could actually be smart with a joke or two.

Humor is serious business. And that’s the end of my science spiel.

The best did it best
Charles Dickens: The father of the modern novel, one of the greatest writers of all time. Dickens’s work made him immortal, and guess what? He wanted it to be funny. That was his goal, and he was revered for it. And when that humor didn’t work, he was criticized. He intended to make Great Expectations a comedy, but readers complained that his writing wasn’t as funny as it used to be. (All this according to his close friend John Forster.)

Many classic works of literature contain hearty doses of humor, from the satire of Swift to the witty barbs of Jane Austen. Humor also helps authors broach more staid subjects. Kurt Vonnegut tackled massive topics and themes, which may have been overwhelming to the reader without his trademark sarcasm.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is a satire about war, and Heller often makes points using absurdist humor:

“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.

“No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.

“Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.

“They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”

There is nothing funny about the situation, and yet it’s funny because of the delivery and the levity Heller attaches to it. None of the poignancy of the situation is lost, either—it’s just not entirely, as Amis put it, “the glamour of gloom.”

That’s not to say that every author needs to be a great humorist, of course. But even the most serious novel needs a dose of humor to really deliver on the authenticity of the human condition. Muriel Spark wrote such novels as Memento Mori, where the poor elderly characters are besieged by anonymous phone calls reminding them that they’re going to die. But she makes it funny, which makes it approachable, which ultimately allows the reader to feel more.

Bareknuckle humor
Think of it like this: When a reader approaches a work of writing, they come at it like a boxer with their gloves up. In theory, readers know what the point of a story is. It’s to make them feel things. But they need to be prepared to feel things. You can throw all the jabs and crosses and hooks you want at the reader with all of your emotional, tear-jerking scenes or terrifying twists and turns, but if they’re still guarding themselves, those punches won’t land.

You have to get readers to lower their guard. The easiest and most effective way to do that? Get them to laugh.

What better time to deliver on an emotional gut punch that will resonate like never before? Clearly after getting your reader to laugh, to let their guard down, to feel safe.

One example I love to use is the novel The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, a story that toes the line between a very serious matter and a very funny matter. Here you have an old man, Alan, in a nursing home who wakes up and “wonders whether it wouldn’t soon be time to go to bed.” The whole narrative around nursing homes is tragic. So Alan climbs out of the window and, as you may have guessed, disappears. He goes on a journey of whimsy and wonder and so, so much laughter.

You know what the most tragic part of the whole story is? Spoiler: His cat dies. But all this time we’ve been laughing it up with Alan, enjoying his sharp wit and observations. We build up this fortification that we’re having so much fun that nothing could possibly go wrong. And that’s why, when it does, it hits so much harder.

Bernardine Evaristo, author of the Booker Prize-winning novel Girl, Woman, Other, echoed the disarming nature of humor when speaking about her book with the Irish Times:

“When you’re writing a serious book with humor, if you open the reader up to humor, you’re also opening them up to everything else that’s in the book,” she said.

Don’t overcook it
So now that we’re all resolved to include some humor even when we’re being serious (we are all agreed, right?), let’s talk about how to do that. Because, unfortunately, humor is not a natural impulse to a lot of people (especially since writing is often lonely and rife with rejection).

The first thing to remember is not to overdo it. Overcooked humor is just as bad as overcooked turkey. No one needs more of either in their lives.

Let’s look at an example courtesy of Mateo Askaripour’s highly acclaimed novel Black Buck. You don’t need to look beyond the first line for a great example of what effective humor looks like.

The day that changed my life was like every other day before it, except that it changed my life.

That’s funny! But what’s so funny about it is that there is no ba-dum-tisss, no neon light that says “laughter.” There’s just a cut-and-dry statement like we’ve heard before, but with a tiny deft twist to make the reader grin.

It’s a perfect way to begin a story because, like Evaristo said, when you establish humor, you open up your reader to the rest of the story, too.

And not for nothing, it’s also endearing. Who doesn’t love to spend time with someone with a good sense of humor? And that’s what a novel is: Spending a considerable amount of time with a character. A dose of sharp wit is that much more beneficial to you, the reader—as well as something you, the writer, should want for your readers.

Humor doesn’t have to be difficult or labor-intensive. Even small doses, like Askaripour gives us in the first line of Black Buck, open up the reader for what’s to come. It expands the full breadth of emotion in the story and makes room for more emotional reactions in the pages to come.

What’s yours is yours

Similar to a writing voice, humor manifests differently in each person. It’s not all cut from the same cloth, so it comes down to what feels best and most natural to you. Not sure which type works best for you? Read more. Read slapstick, deadpan, satirical, and over-the-top humor writing. There’s a sense of humor out there for everyone—and I do mean everyone—so you just need to find what clicks most with you and work it into your writing.

Chances are, the more you try it, the more it develops. Not everyone is going to have writing as saturated with humor as, say, Vonnegut, and that’s perfectly fine! But you owe it to your reader to help them see the full spectrum of the emotions available to them in your story, and you can’t do that without a little humor.

This article originally appeared in The Writer magazine