If anyone has any other writing questions, or you're one of the people who sent me questions but haven't had an answer yet (mea culpa!) please feel free to ask in the comments and I'll try to respond next week. For today:
RETROFRIDAY: A QUESTION OF LAUGHTER
Today I'm going to tackle a question from the comments, left by Dear Reader Rebecca, which reads as follows:
After reading about Jack in The Night Itself, I was reminded about a problem I am having in my book. Like Jack, I have a character who is a bit of a joker. The problem I am experiencing is making my character funny in a way that seems natural. He always says funny comments at the most inappropriate times, and the characters in the book find him funny, but I don't know if readers will find him funny. Did you experience this when you were writing Jack? I want my character to be the one that makes the future seem a little brighter, even under the direst circumstances, but I don't think I am executing it as well as I hoped.I wish I had a really amazing answer for this - it's a great question. The problem is that it's kind of... unanswerable? Because humour is one of the most quirky and individual traits we have. What makes one person laugh until they cry makes another person cringe or simply say 'I don't get it'.
For example, the most celebrated comedian of recent times, Ricky Gervaise, fills me not with the urge to chortle but the urge to hit him in the head with a bag of wet cement whenever he shows up on TV. And 'Get Smart', a film starring Steve Carell, which tanked at the cinema and was roundly condemned as unfunny by everyone, tickles my funny bone so hard that I have a DVD which I take around to my parents place to cheer my dad up whenever he's ill (seriously, I've watched it about twenty times now).
And that's not the only problem. Sometimes even if you do succeed in making a character generally funny - that is, funny to the largest possible section of your potential audience - that can still work against you. Unless you're writing 'a funny book', a book which has the sole aim of making readers laugh, you have to be really careful that the humour you use works *with* the rest of the book. That it's adding to the other effects that you were trying to create, helping to characterise your people, adding to your atmosphere, moving your plot forward.
When I was writing Jack (and, indeed, Mio) I really wanted her to have a real teen voice, to sound like someone you could overhear sitting behind you on the bus any day of the week. So I burrowed down into my memories of being a teen and linked those up with the memories of all the young adults I've been privileged to meet over my years of doing school visits and book-signings and library bookclubs, and I chose a certain tone for her.
That tone was one of a really clever, sensitive young woman who sees a lot more than people realise she does, and who responds to most of it with a joking, insouciant tone which hides how deeply she cares. She acts tough and like she takes nothing seriously, but underneath she's a big softy.
However, when my editor came to read The Night Itself (and indeed, Darkness Hidden, the next book) she didn't really see that big-hearted, bright teen. The facade which I'd written for Jack was too good. Her defense-mechanism humour was so effective that it stopped the reader seeing who she really was.
My editor said she laughed out loud constantly at Jack's jokes. That's good right? Well, not always. As a result of all these moments of humour, she was constantly being thrown out of moments of tension or sympathy or even fear because Jack (or Mio) made some light-hearted quip. Jack came across like she just wasn't scared of the terrifying events that were going on around her, like she thought she was invulnerable. And if Jack wasn't scared, why should the readers be scared for her? Why should they empathise?
The big re-write that I did on The Night Itself ended up being mostly a process of scaling back the humour in the story. Not just Jack, but Mio, needed to be shown to the reader as more than brave, wise-cracking teens. Their vulnerabilities, their fears and insecurities, their uncertainty about the situation and themselves, all needed to be painted in with just as much care as I had used on their one-liners. And sometimes that meant cutting a really killer line that made me laugh out loud, and my editor laugh out loud, every time that we read it.
I fought for a lot of those lines. Like you, I wanted to use humour to undercut moments of high tension and stop the story and characters from getting too pompous. I wanted to contrast light-hearted moments of my young adult characters just acting the way that young adults do with moments where they're confronted with challenges that most adults couldn't face, and take them on, teeth gritted.
But if you've worked incredibly hard to build up a chilling, frightening, or exciting scene where the reader is on the edge of their seat, not knowing what will happen next or if someone might get hurt or even die, and then you have a character throw a quip in there that makes the reader unexpectedly laugh, a lot of the time not only have you *defused* the story tension that you worked so hard to build, but you might also have made it that much harder for the reader to empathise with your character.
There are moments when even the most hardened joker is going to choke on their own feelings and come up empty, and you need to be able to show that - because that's the moment when the reader will fall in love with your character and all their glorious vulnerability. That's the moment when the reader will see the complex, nuanced character that YOU, the writer know and love.
Basically, it's a balancing act, and there's no easy way to ensure you don't fall off.
My advice to you is this. The only person you can be absolutely sure of making laugh is yourself. So go for it 100%. Make this character as funny as you want them to me, for you. Don't hold back for fear of offending anyone else or getting it wrong.
Then, when you've finished, you're going to hand your manuscript over to others. Beta readers or critique partners or a trusted friend - or maybe even an editor or an agent. And those people are going to say 'Hang on, this joke right here... it kind of ruins this tension you were building up and now I find I'm not scared anymore' or 'I actually had a real feeling of sympathy for their situation then, but then the character joked about it and I got annoyed...'.
When this happens you must be prepared to go back into the manuscript with a ruthless pen and pare the humour right down so that it shines through only at moments when it really improves your story, increases empathy between the reader and the character, or undercuts a moment that needs to be undercut. The end result may be a story that causes less belly-laughs in the reader, although I think you'll be surprised at how quite a small amount of humour can go a very long way. But it should ALSO be a story that touches the reader more, moves them more, and leaves them with a sense that they got to know the characters well, instead of just glancing off the surface of their humourous defense mechanisms.
I hope this is helpful, Rebecca!