Hi all. My name is Inkblot, in case we haven’t been introduced yet.

I’m setting out here to write a reasonably light-hearted and positive article about fantasy writing. One of the features of this site that spurred me to sign up here was the sporking. There’s a certain witty and cutting kind of sarcastic humor that I never fail to fall for, and it was present here in spades. Of late, however, it seems that affairs in Maradonia have degenerated into mostly profanity; I hasten to add that there is no blame to assign for this, as nothing drives a hardworking amateur or professional into an incoherent rage faster than hopelessly shoddy work in their field of expertise. So here we are; I only seek to lighten the mood for a little while.

Let’s talk about humor. First, a bit of stage-setting. It may just be an issue among the B-grade “lit” that gets made fun of around here, or it may be an issue with fantasy in general, but I think that a lot of these people are taking themselves and their work way too seriously. I would like to hope that every card-carrying member of ImpishIdea has at the very least heard the name Terry Pratchett before. His Discworld series is unique, as far as I know, in the realm of traditional fantasy writing. It is done in the fine old tradition of the British sense of humor; among Mr. Pratchett’s spiritual ancestors are such as Douglas Adams and Monty Python. There are now 38 books set in the Discworld universe, including the novels aimed at the YA crowd, which for the record is a hell of a lot more than the vague number I had in mind when I looked that up. The common thread of the series involves comedic deconstruction of different fantasy clichés from a wide variety of sources and mythologies. Back to that in a moment.

There’s this chap named Horace Walpole, and I don’t have any idea what he did or who he is, but he once said the following: “Life is a comedy for those who think, and a tragedy for those who feel.” It’s a pretty good quote. The important realization, of course, is that life is both. Everyone’s dealt with the heavy stuff: death, sorrow, failure, all the broken threads, snapped connections, and missed opportunities that plague this tear-stained world. But everyone’s also known the surprisingly vivid and poignant moments when the only response is laughter, the cleansing and critically unimportant froth of a good chuckle that lets us keep sliding through, lets us get up and have another go. Life just doesn’t make sense. It’s a vast, seething storm of everything that makes us up, all our emotions and experiences, and it can’t possibly all fit into a novel. But those novelists who come closest are those who manage to work both humor and sadness in, because in life we encounter both regularly.

What is humor? I once heard it defined as “The human mind’s response to a perceived inconsistency.” We meet something that doesn’t make sense. So we laugh it off. Thank whatever God you believe in that you never will have to meet the crushing weight of an entirely humorless world. It’s a powerful tool, and it makes us more human and less inhumane. I believe that it’s also somewhat lacking in fantasy, personally. This is, of course, because we influence our writing as much as it influences us. A work is the product of both the time it’s set in and the time it’s written in. Ours is an increasingly dark, brooding, and violent planet, but that’s no reason to let the flame of humor blow out; it’s rather an excellent argument for why we should keep it lit. We often make the mistake of thinking that our society faces a curse that no one has ever seen before. It’s simply not true. The demons and sins that plague humanity have been with us since the beginning, since age is the essence of evil. Only virtue is truly young. I give you War and Peace, Tolstoy’s most famous work, as an example. War has been an ugly scar on civilization since the day it was invented. The blood-red madness that drives men to slaughter each other has not been any less pleasing to the eye in any age. Tolstoy was a veteran of the Crimean War, a conflict in that curious time when men tried to civilize and tame war and ended up with cold slaughter, and that experience informed his writing. War and Peace is heavy stuff, a typical Great Russian doorstopper. There’s despair and drinking and suicide galore, as well as a pace of storytelling that can only be described as glacial. The opening scene of the book is an introduction of the Rostov family and some others, all of whom are important later in the novel. It’s an incredibly boring take-off; 82 pages are devoted to a party, the sole purpose of which is to introduce about twenty of the main characters, fifteen of the minor characters, and five or six people of no importance whatsoever. It is redeemed solely through Tolstoy’s keen knowledge of human behavior and neat little touches. The incident I want to discuss in particular involves Nikolai, a fifteen-year-old, and his distant cousin Sonya, thirteen, whose budding preadolescent romance is given exactly the treatment it deserves. Nikolai is joining the army soon; he’s a bit too big for his boots, and these little games are almost- but not quite – beneath him. Sonya is hopelessly in love with him and does her awkward best to flirt and draw him in. It’s adorable. It’s endearing, funny, and exactly true to life, and that one scene was what made me slog through all 850-and-change pages of this monster AND slog through the endless angsting and second-guessing of the ten or eleven principals, because that one scene made me care about what happened to the characters. In contrast, Crime and Punishment is a very similar novel with an entirely different premise: a young university student who believes he is the Ubermensch commits a murder for money, and his cat-and-mouse game with the police and his guilt eventually almost destroy his sanity. His name I can’t remember. He was a horribly tortured and broken human being who paid for his crimes many times over along Dostoyevsky’s trip into the deepest cracks of the pit of the soul, but he was not a person to me in the way that Nikolai and Sonya were. They both suffered and rejoiced the way I both suffer and rejoice. They were human.

A few counter-examples that I just thought of. First up is the whole genre of “dark fantasy”. Now I freely confess that I’ve never read anything that would fall into this genre, mostly because the all-too-common examples are “porn for women”. With that said, it seems like the common theme is either A: it’s a crappy novel and the main character(s) spend endless pages breathlessly choking on their insatiable lust or B: it’s a slightly less crappy novel or even a fairly good one and the main characters spend endless pages angsting about their fate/doing something violent/reflecting on someone else doing something violent/etc. The truth is that no human being can sustain a ravaging, dark emotion that’s deeply felt for very long at all. Some examples of these include a truly killing rage, the frightening state in which you really could take someone’s life, easily, or a really suicidal depression, or some others. There’s not too many of them. If you’ve ever felt one you know that they don’t last. You just can’t keep up the pace. Even on a lighter note, a traditional high fantasy where the Hero must Accept His Quest and Defeat Evil to Save The World From Itself is just a tad unrealistic. If you’re really curious, as an experiment, see how long you can keep your mind fully preoccupied with a serious, grave matter without being distracted in any way. Humor is stress relief, the little red valve in your brain that keeps you from going nuts. Even Dl’alang’hoy III, Great Warden of the North, has one, and forgetting that it’s there makes him/it into a robot. A particular example before we move on is that one truly awful thing with the dragons that they sporked on here a while back. You Slay Me, that was it. The cab driver dude, right, whassisname? The one guy who turned out to be like a cross between Keanu Reeves from Constantine and Chuck Norris? If you actually want him to be a character who’s the Human Normal, which as far as I can tell was the original intention, and you expect me to believe that he went along with all this crazy-ass Illuminati secret-society plotting without even once cracking a smile at the sheer raving idiocy of it all? Think about the cynical, world-weary cab driver indulging in a gut-busting laugh as the lady lead tries to tell him about the secret dragon bar or whatever the hell it was, and watch as he immediately pops into relief as a three-dimensional human being against the cardboard background of the plot. Sure, his salvation is at the expense of the plot, but there’s a way to work it in without destroying the credibility of the whole.

The best fantasy novel I ever read was The Once and Future King by T.H. White. I firmly believe that it will remain the best fantasy novel I ever read until the day I return to dust. If you’ve never read it, you owe it to yourself to make the time. It’s a fun romp through the storied halls of Arthurian legend, and hilariously takes apart some of the silliness of medieval glory in much a similar way as the Discworld novels do. I can’t furnish you with a page number or an exact quote, but there’s one scene where the boy Arthur and Merlin are watching two knights joust. T.H. White takes the opportunity to address the reader directly and mention that the weight of those glorious armor-clad knights meant that they couldn’t charge each other at anything more than a crawl. So the two champions laboriously make their way toward each other. They are quite polite and rules-abiding noblemen, engaging in chivalrous back-and-forth conversation as the duel progresses. One eventually falls off his horse and is unable to get up. The other, unable to see through the thin slit in his helmet, runs into a tree. Delightful silliness like this abounds in the first section of the book. There’s a noble knight floating around whose sworn familial duty is to chase a mythical creature; when he finally calls it quits, the creature takes to spending its days crying and moping about until he gives up in a fit of soft-hearted generosity and takes up his lance once more. Arthur is called Wart by everyone he knows. And this is where the true magic of this book lies. Without this charming, enchanting summer in the beginning, the truly heartbreaking moment when the reader and Arthur finally realize that the leaves have fallen, the birds have flown, the oaths are all broken and the magic is forever lost, and winter is coming on, would have little of its impact. There is no worse bitterness than the bittersweet.

On to Discworld. There’s a character in Discworld who is a vampire, a traditional vampire without any of that sparkly crap. This includes weakness to the light. His passion is photography with a box and plate camera, which of course requires a flashbulb. Here is the disconnect. Here is the humor. Every time he takes a picture, he screams in agony and turns into a pile of dust, which some Good Samaritan must sweep up and expose to a drop of cow blood from a bottle he carries around his neck. Note how this system is a system. It follows its own rigid rules of logic, in the same way that the universe and bureaucracy do. It just happens to be an amusing logic. Humor does not necessarily mean lunacy on a Catch-22 scale. Anyway, he is one of the most lovable characters in the series. He and others like him allow the reader to like the story. We like it. It made us laugh. When Pratchett decides to delve into serious topics, they become all the more vivid for the contrast. Sam Vimes is one of the recurring main characters, a violent, unrestrained alcoholic who keeps his old life and self tightly under wraps. His moral dilemmas and occasional breakdowns would not be as compelling without the entertaining pure silliness he must endure at the office from his completely incompetent subordinates, Nobby and Fred.

Another useful feature of humor is its ability to conjure up suspension of disbelief through (believe it or not) its logic. There’s a movie out there called Galaxy Quest. (By the way, you know you’ve got it made when you’re using Galaxy Quest as research material for a supposedly serious article. Whatever field you’re in, stay there.) It’s a straight-up spoof of the grandiose vision that was Star Trek, and there’s a lot of pretty funny moments in it. There’s one particular scene where Sigourney Weaver, the Token Female, and the captain (Tim Allen) are trying to find their way through their spaceship, which an alien race built by endlessly watching reruns of the Star Trek-like show they were actors in. Yeah, it’s pretty goofy. They reach one particular corridor where pistons with spikes on them are slamming down and across the path they must take. Weaver screams “Why is this even here?” The inclusion of humor and parody in Galaxy Quest enabled THAT world to actually make more logical, in-world sense than the world of Star Trek that it was spoofing. In fiction, a little joke made by one of the characters is a super-simple Lampshade Hang (and honestly, what’s more boring or annoying than an entire WORLD where every. Single. Person. is an accomplished wangster and no one is there to get the colossal joke?) You get the idea. I just wanted to bring Galaxy Quest in.

So I’ve gone on for quite long enough. I believe that the inclusion of a dash of humor in whatever fantasy world you’re writing is well worth your time to consider. Humor is escapism. It’s especially appropriate in dark or bleak settings because the sharp contrast makes people out of your characters. If you were a slave for a Dark Lord, you wouldn’t find something to laugh at accidentally and through great effort, because if you acted moody and emo, you just wouldn’t make it. Anger might keep you alive, but laughter is the only thing that would keep you human. In life, humor and tragedy are always hand-in-hand, and putting them together is a great way to bring a little more vividness to your creation.

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  1. Inkblot on 5 July 2011, 09:37 said:

    tl;dr: For the love of all that is good and holy, make sure you have a comic relief character who’s actually funny.

  2. NeuroticPlatypus on 5 July 2011, 12:50 said:

    They reach one particular corridor where pistons with spikes on them are slamming down and across the path they must take. Weaver screams “Why is this even here?”

    “Whoever wrote this episode should die!” …I love Galaxy Quest. :)

    I really liked this article. Humor seems harder to do than the angst for some reason, but it is really important.

    make sure you have a comic relief character who’s actually funny.

    I don’t really think you need a character that is only there for comic relief; you just need the characters indulge in comic relief on occasion.

  3. Snow White Queen on 5 July 2011, 13:12 said:

    I don’t really think you need a character that is only there for comic relief

    Yes, because then they usually become useless, making them more annoying than funny.

  4. Rozen Maiden on 5 July 2011, 13:51 said:

    Great article, and I really have to agree with it. In fact I’m already doing this. Right now I’m writing a Victorian era Faustian historical fantasy (boy is that a mouthful) which is quite dark and serious. The first chapter alone ends with the main character ordering his demon servant to burn a man alive. In a subsequent chapter he has a nightmare about the fire that killed his parents and nearly killed him … and then is awoken abruptly by his cousin throwing a bucket of cold water over him, because she’s annoyed with him for making her miss Gilbert and Sullivan.

    Even though the overall tone of the story is quite dark, I always try and add little fun touches to it to liven things up now and again. I told someone about a scene I wrote recently, a sword fight between a demon and an angel. They immediately assumed it was some kind of epic conflict between good and evil. It really wasn’t. The fight was actually a fencing contest that stemmed from an argument about dancing, and I managed to include exploding billiard balls in the fight scene.

    There’s a video game series I really love called Uncharted. It’s like a modern day Indiana Jones, and despite generally being quite serious, it has so many great touches of humour in it that really make it stick in my mind and remember it long after I’ve forgotten about other games. In one of them, right after a very serious ending, they gave us this exchange, and I cracked up;

    Elena: So, on a scale of one to ten, how scared were you that I was gonna die?
    Drake: … four.
    Elena: Four?!
    Drake: Yeah, why?
    Elena: A four?
    Drake: Yeah.
    Elena: You were at least an eight.
    Drake: An eight?
    Elena: You were a total eight.
    Drake: An eight? Those guardian things were an eight.
    Elena: Are you kidding me?
    Drake: Yeah, those were terrifying.
    Elena: Then what’s a ten?
    Drake: … clowns.

  5. WulfRitter on 5 July 2011, 16:01 said:

    A fantastic article! I whole-heartedly agree that fantasy needs more humor interjected into it; if nothing else, it makes the characters more human and lets the reader see another facet of the author’s creation.

    Unfortunately, part of the reason there is not more humor in fantasy is because the readers and/or editors (and I am really thinking it’s the editors) do not want to see it. Oh, occasionally you will see a witty gem, but for the most part, humor is actively discouraged. I can tell you from experience that fantasy magazine editors will return a story with humorous elements and they will give remarks such as, “We do not want ‘funny’,” and, “Witty story, but our readers want fantasy and not humor.”

    I am not sure who those readers are, but I have always appreciated when a writer gives me a good laugh. After all, laughter is just as human an experience as crying.

  6. Talisman on 5 July 2011, 18:43 said:

    An excellent article about a subject I have often mused on myself. I completely agree that some level of humor and lightheartedness is necessary for the more serious elements of a story to have the proper gravitas; otherwise, as you noted, we end up with an ensemble of emotionless robots.

    In reference to your views on Dark Fantasy, I would like to offer a counterpoint: The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher. This series is urban fantasy with a very dark cast; people die, including young people and reoccurring characters who one would expect to live. There is torture, both physical and mental. The hero, Harry Dresden, has to deal with some seriously nasty supernatural entities, and make some incredibly hard choices.

    And yet it is filled with humor. Harry has a snarky wit, and often sees no choice but to laugh at the situations he finds himself in. All the characters, from Harry himself down to those who appear and die in the space of a chapter, are people. They have emotions; they care about what’s going on. As a result, I care about them and about the story.

  7. Steph (what is left) on 5 July 2011, 21:40 said:

    Nice one, Inkblot. It’s about time people stood up for humour.

  8. VikingBoyBilly on 6 July 2011, 10:37 said:

    This is interesting. The thing that bores me about movies and tv shows these days is that they concentrate too much on humor, centralizing around it to the point you never expect it to take itself seriously at any point (look at how The Simpsons and Family Guy degenerated).
    Fantasy stories, I guess, have the opposite problem.

    Let’s take a look at the mother/earthbound series. The first thing people will normally tell you about it is that they’re parody rpgs filled with funny lines. But underneath all that are really dark, heavy, tearjerking story elements and stuff that’s so twisted it will give you nightmares. They’re ‘serious games that don’t take themselves seriously.’ If you took away either the sense of humor, or took away the dark elements, and left the other in, they would be really insipid games. But the way it is, they’re unforgettable classics.

  9. Shinjachan on 6 July 2011, 12:30 said:

    Nice article. While reading this, I kept thinking back to Roald Dahl’s Matilda: I remember Matilda saying that the one failing of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books is that there’s not an ounce of humor in it. Of course, I picked up the books later, and it’s true—I don’t remember laughing. It was all serious business.

    Similarly, I remember a quote I read once (paraphrased): “The best way to make your audience cry is to make them laugh first.” It’s as you said— laughing makes a character human. It’s the easiest and most natural way to establish that empathy.

    Thank you for the lovely read =)

  10. Snow White Queen on 6 July 2011, 22:29 said:

    I remember Matilda saying that the one failing of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books is that there’s not an ounce of humor in it. Of course, I picked up the books later, and it’s true—I don’t remember laughing. It was all serious business.

    Which is why as far as children’s fantasy goes, I much prefer the Prydain books. The humor was never ‘OMGZ LOL THIS IS SO FUNNY’ but it was light and amusing and allowed a proper contrast between light and dark.

  11. VikingBoyBilly on 7 July 2011, 07:53 said:

    The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is serious business? When I picked that up and read the first couple chapters, I put it down because I thought the author was drugged out of his mind when he wrote it. So much random, crazy, and nonsensical stuff. It’s a lot like Alice in Wonderland (but makes a better attempt at making sense).

  12. Steph (what is left) on 7 July 2011, 11:16 said:

    While reading this, I kept thinking back to Roald Dahl’s Matilda: I remember Matilda saying that the one failing of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books is that there’s not an ounce of humor in it. Of course, I picked up the books later, and it’s true—I don’t remember laughing. It was all serious business.

    Really? I remember laughing during The Magician’s Nephew. For example, the animals christening Uncle Andrew ‘brandy’ because he made that noise so often, and the Jackdaw’s obsession with jokes.

    @ VikingBoyBilly: I think you and Tolkein would’ve gotten along well as regards Narnia :)

  13. fffan on 8 July 2011, 21:55 said:

    Nice. I’d just like to point out a few things though:

    1) There are dangers that accompany characters laughing at a jokes. When it’s tight and witty, the readers want to laugh as well, but if the characters are literally ROFLOLing with tears streaming down their faces, it may develop their personalities but it’ll leech any chance of earning a smile on the audience’s side too. Also, it makes the author seem pretentious, as if they’re reaching out of the pages to give the readers a shake and then pointing excitedly at the punchline. I can’t tell you how much it annoys me when people do that.

    2) Again, nicely written article. The only thing I can recommend is breaking a few of your paragraphs into smaller chunks.

    3) Have you read the Bartimaeus Trilogy? I think you would enjoy it. It’s not my favourite fantasy/sci-fi book, but it’s definitely in the top ten.

  14. Snow White Queen on 9 July 2011, 02:19 said:

    the Bartimaeus Trilogy

    I was just recommending the first book to my little brother today! Fond memories, especially of those footnotes.

  15. swenson on 12 July 2011, 13:46 said:

    Yay, Discworld shout-outs! In the past week, I read a good half-dozen of them, some for the first time and some as a reread, so I’m very open to humorous fantasy right now. In regards to the stuff about Otto von Chriek (the vampire photographer), he’s a perfect example of this. He seems just a little silly at the beginning, the sort of person you just have to laugh at behind their back, with his fussy sort of ways and how he’s a teetotaller who doesn’t even want to hear the “b-vord”. But then at the end of The Truth… well, you see what Otto could be like if he wasn’t a Black Ribboner. And it’s all the more serious for the silliness that came before, especially when he points out that he deliberately acts like that, because if people laugh at him they won’t find him frightening.

    Discworld’s very good at balancing humor and seriousness, really. For books with a focus on humor, they get downright scary or sad at times, and both are handled well. It’s a good example of how funny does not equal silly or stupid.

  16. Kyllorac on 7 August 2011, 14:45 said:

    Diana Wynne Jones writes affectionate parodies of the fantasy genre. The Dark Lord of Derkholm in particular stands out in my mind.

    Patricia C. Wrede has The Enchanted Forest Chronicles which is remains perhaps my all-time favorite series of books ever. And they recently got a reprint, so they’re fairly easy to get a hold of now.

    Both authors intersperse humor aplenty into their stories, and the characters are all the more alive for it.

  17. swenson on 7 August 2011, 22:20 said:

    Patricia C. Wrede is one of my favorite authors ever. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles were are fantastic. Cimorene was my hero as a kid, because she was just so awesome. Yeah, she might be a princess, but that doesn’t mean she has to be either A) the damsel in distress or B) the Strong Warrior Womyn. She was just this very levelheaded, smart girl who ended up being friends with dragons. Which in my book, is a whole lot cooler than either being saved by the grand hero or even fighting the dragon herself.

  18. Deborah on 18 April 2013, 13:18 said:

    Actually, I found Narnia pretty funny. There’s the mention of how Eustace ‘almost deserved’ his name; the bit in “Prince Caspian” about how girls don’t carry maps in their heads, because ‘they have something inside them’; the scenes that Steph mentioned in “The Magician’s Nephew,” the scene with the very deaf Trumpkin in “The Silver Chair,” a lot of what Puddleglum says, the professor wondering ‘what do they teach them in these schools?,” Reepicheep, and a bit in “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” about how Drinian is continuing to steer the ship in the direction they aren’t sure if they want to go “Like tiresome people in cars who continue at forty miles an hour while you are explaining to them that they are on the wrong road.”

    Humor is subjective, and not everyone finds the same things funny, but I found that C.S. Lewis in general was pretty good at humor—especially if you ever read “The Screwtape Letters.”

    Tolkien could actually be funny too, especially in the interactions between Gandalf and Pippin. “There must be someone with intelligence in the party” “Then you will certainly not be chosen, Peregrine Took!”