A touch of comedy is useful for any story. It humanizes characters and creates variety in even the darkest of horror. In noir or romance, it adds to the appeal of lead characters. In the age of The Avengers and Ant Man, it’s practically mandatory for an action story.
To work, humor needs to emerge naturally from the story you’re writing. If not, it will feel obtrusive and bolted on, disrupting the reader’s immersion. The best way to create this natural comedy is to let it emerge from your character.
Characters Make Comedy
Steve Kaplan, in his book The Hidden Tools of Comedy, places character at the centre of comedy. His method for creating humour is best expressed through a single line from the book:
"Comedy is about an ordinary guy or gal struggling against insurmountable odds without many of the required skills and tools with which to win yet never giving up hope."
The sight of a character persisting in trying to achieve something they lack the skills for, pushing themselves to ever more outlandish methods to achieve it, creates sympathy for the character while at the same time being funny.
In many stories, the characters we’re following aren’t at all ordinary, but the rest of Kaplan’s model can still be applied to humorous effect. Picture the members of the Avengers trying to pick up Thor’s hammer in the film Age of Ultron. These people are all highly skilled, yet completely unequipped for the task. Their persistence creates comedy.
Comedy Principles Make Great Characters
The model Kaplan provides connects in neatly with other lessons about how to make a great character.
In his video Beginnings: Setting a Story in Motion, Michael Arndt talks about character flaws. Any character needs a flaw to be interesting and convincing. Arndt suggests that their greatest flaw should come out of their grand passion, the thing that motivates them the most. The results are both psychologically convincing and thematically pleasing.
Kaplan’s comedy character epitomises this. They are driven to pursue a goal that at times is impossible. Their quest becomes their flaw, subjecting them to injury and ridicule, creating chaos around them. Think of Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory – his passions for science and for order drive him and drive the humour.
A discussion of character in episode 9.13 of the Writing Excuses podcast explains how such characters remain engaging. Creating a likeable character is about balancing competence, proactivity and sympathy. A character following Kaplan’s template is extremely proactive and often sympathetic, but they aren’t competent, and that creates the perfect balance between being unlikeable and being boringly perfect.
Balancing the Humour
Even if you’re not writing a comedy, Kaplan’s character model is useful for injecting humour. If you want to lighten the tone, take your serious character and place them, however briefly, in a situation where they’re determined to succeed but lack the relevant skills or knowledge. Easie Damasco playing at politics and heroism in David Tallerman’s Giant Thief. Thor trying to pass for normal in human society in the Thor film. Whether it’s for whole plotlines or just a minute of dialogue, taking the character outside their comfort zone like this humanises them as well as creating humour.
This humour should emerge from the character and from desires that fit their character. Damasco’s flawed heroism comes from a streak of goodness the readers can see hidden in his previous behaviour. Thor’s attempt to fit in is natural for a character who is jovial, sociable, used to being the centre of attention, and almost entirely lacking in self-awareness.
Don’t force the humour, either by moving away from who the character normally is or by exaggerating their emotions. If you put the right character in the right situation then the humour will emerge naturally, fit your story and add to the depth of your characters. Whether you’re writing a full comedy or breaking the tension of a thriller, it’s worth doing this well.
Character-centred comedy doesn’t just lead to great humour, it leads to great characters – one more reason why it’s a skill worth any writer’s time.