Humorous Fiction – Everything you need to know
Rob Gregory – Author
Humorous fiction. What is it? How do you do it and how do you get a laugh? Insights from someone who writes humorous fiction books for a living, Rob Gregory, author.
Everyone thinks that writers of humorous fiction are zany madcap figures, who are the life and soul of the party and crack brilliantly witty jokes at the drop of a dead ferret. Nothing could be further from the truth. Humorous fiction writers walk among us unnoticed. Their dour faces and vacuous expressions blend in with the surrounding environment like chameleons sitting on tropical tree logs, waiting for passing flies. Take a look around you. Chances are there is one standing within spitting distance. A humorous writer that is, not a chameleon. No, nothing out of the ordinary? Look again. Closer this time. Did you spot it? The tell-tale glint in the eye that lets you know that this person is someone who sees things differently to the average member of the human race. If you did, then you’re in for a treat because you’re in the presence of a humorous fiction writer or else you’ve just attracted the attention of the local serial killer. Either way, good luck!
So, you think you’ve got humorous fiction in your bones? Then to paraphrase the words of ‘Dirty’ Harry Callaghan, ‘Go ahead, punk. Make me laugh…’
Getting a Giggle Through Humorous Fiction
Did you see what I did there? I took a well-known line from a Clint Eastwood film and turned it into something silly, in order to raise a smile. Okay, I’ll admit that it isn’t all that funny, but you get the idea.
The whole point of humorous fiction is to do just that; raise a smile, a giggle or even a full-blown laugh — if you get it right — from your readership. Yet, it is one of the most difficult things to do in literature. Part of the problem is that humour is intensely personal and what one person finds hilarious, another person might find silly, annoying or even downright offensive.
A few months ago, I was working on a compilation of humorous fantasy stories, one of which played around with preconceptions of traditional fantasy characters, in this case fairies and dark elves. I had very definite ideas about how I wanted the characters to look and behave and wrote what I thought was a very funny tale about mistaken identities and sexual promiscuity. Given the androgynous nature of the fairies, I was keen to avoid upsetting the LGBTQ community, so wrote the story with a couple of gay friends in mind. What would their reaction to the story be? I kept asking myself as the events within it unfolded. When it was complete and I was satisfied that I wouldn’t be hung, drawn and quartered by my friends, I sent it off to three independent reviewers to get their feedback.
One of them loved the story as it stood and found it very funny. The other two were appalled by what they saw as vulgar, sexually grotesque humour, done in very poor taste. To further compound matters, one of the two who disliked it, loved the character names, while the other hated them because of the images that they conjured up, which I have to say was my intention all along.
Needless to say, a thorough review and rewrite of the chapter followed and I do feel that I ended up with a stronger and more amusing story because of the feedback I received. However, it does go to show how personal humour can be in the eyes of the reader and how strong a reaction it can provoke if you get it wrong!
The Humorous Fiction Genre – What is it?
The humorous fiction genre is massive and basically covers creative work written with the intent of making the reader smile. It stretches from light-hearted romantic comedy at one end, to the bleakest of black comedies at the other and covers everything else in between. To try and describe every individual nuance of the humorous fiction genre would probably take an encyclopaedia to do so and would, rather ironically, be quite boring to read. So, instead, here is a list of what I see as the main components of humorous fiction, with a short description of each one afterwards.
- Romantic comedy
- Surrealism/Fantastical humour
- Dark comedy (including black humour)
FUN FACT: Don Quixote, which is widely regarded as the first modern novel, is a piece of humorous fiction. With the delusional Quixote getting into fights which are none of his business and fighting windmills, not to mention his faithful sidekick, Sancho Panza, who uses wit to manage his master’s frequent rants on the world at large, the book has many of the ingredients of good comic fiction and has to be up there as one of the best humorous fiction books of all time. You can read more about Don Quixote, here.
Slapstick is probably the simplest form of humour, in which violence that does no lasting damage is visited by one individual onto another or others. It is commonly found in humorous fiction books for kids, including one of my personal favourites, The Reluctant Vampire, by Eric Morecambe. In that particular book, the ironically named Dr Plump, throttles Igon, the one-eyed servant, after climbing a huge flight of stairs only to be told that the key to the room he must enter was left on the table at the bottom of the stairs!
Farce works by creating ridiculous situations that wouldn’t exist in the real world and building humorous elements into them. To my mind, one of the best humorous fiction writers in this regard is Tom Sharpe. Take, for example, Riotous Assembly, the hilarious first instalment about the ineptitude of the South African Police Force during the years of apartheid. A series of misunderstandings and poor decisions, combined with the refusal to believe that a pillar of the community could have murdered her black cook, turns a quiet little South African town into a disaster area of epic proportions, with side-splitting results.
Parody is an imitative style of comedy, where a subject may be taken out of context in order to make fun of it. In my humorous fantasy fiction book, Drynwideon, The Sword of Destiny – Yeah, Right, I took the subject of barbarians, who have often been idolised within the genre and turned them into mindless thugs who could barely string two words together and who spent more time arguing and fighting with each other than engaging in traditional barbarian pastimes, such as stealing treasure or rescuing damsels in distress from marauding dragons!
Satire, like sarcasm, is very common in contemporary humorous fiction. It pokes fun at foibles and stupidities in society or among individuals. I liken it to holding up an unflattering mirror at the world and describing what it reflects. Check out Tom Sharpe’s Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure novels for classic examples of brilliantly written and extremely caustic satire.
Sarcasm is similar to satire, in that it can be used to highlight dissatisfaction or displeasure with an event, person or society. However, unlike satire, which can be very gentle or even light-hearted, sarcasm generally has a hurtful or mean edge to it. In Drynwideon, the two main figures have a begrudging friendship, which is characterised by plenty of sarcastic exchanges between them. In the following example, Drin, the reluctant hero and Tefal, the claustrophobic dwarf, have just encountered a strange old lady, whose job is to keep flies and birds off of the corpses that have been hung on the tree outside her hovel:
“Nice woman. Do you think she gets out much?” said Tefal drily.
“Probably more than you do,” replied Drin.
“Bastard,” muttered Tefal under his breath.
There are many different types of sarcasm used in humorous fiction and each depends on the tone or intended purpose. You can find out more about each type of sarcasm here.
Irony refers to situations or dialogue where the outcome is the opposite to that which is intended. It can apply to specific situations or to entire sections of humorous fiction stories. Again, using Drynwideon as an example, one of the drivers of the story is the ongoing attempt by the central characters to avoid taking part in The Quest, a bloodthirsty battle royale, held once every ten years. However, the irony of their actions is that everything they do to avoid it ends up taking them one step closer to it!
Wit is a much misunderstood form of humour, which I feel is sadly lacking in most contemporary humorous fiction novels these days. Most people associate wit or a ‘witty remark’ with a clever piece of word play, however, that is only one part of the equation. Clever phrasing and the choice of words are important, but to qualify as wit in a literary sense, the phrase must also contain an element of mockery of the subject or situation as well as a paradoxical element. Consider this short, but brilliant example, from the famous British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, talking about John Foster Dulles:
“Dull. Duller. Dulles.”
You may well be wondering where the paradox lies in the above statement. Well, have a look at the life of John Foster Dulles, who was for a time the US Secretary of State and you’ll soon see that it was anything but dull!
Exaggeration is a mainstay of humorous fiction. It can either refer to overemphasising a particular character or situation, or as the basis for an entire work of fiction. In the former case, have a look at this excerpt, once again taken from The Reluctant Vampire by Eric Morecambe:
“Doctor Plump was a humourless man with lips as thin as a grasshopper’s legs. A large Roman nose — almost large enough for a Roman to sit on — hung between his small piggy eyes. His eyes were so deep set into his head that they looked as if they had been put there with a Black and Decker.”
In the latter case, My Godawful Life, by Sunny McCreary (aka. the brilliant Michael Kelly, check out his website here) is so ludicrous from the outset that you cannot help but see everything that follows as pure comedy, even though the book is styled as a so-called ‘misery memoir’. Here is the opening paragraph:
“I was born, by breech birth, in a run-down shack, after having been choked on the umbilical cord for half an hour, and was promptly dropped on the floor by the doctor, and when he went to pick me up inadvertently kicked across the room. It was to set the tone for the rest of my life.”
I won’t say much about romantic comedy, as most people are already familiar with it, however, if you want to read a good example, then you could do worse than Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. Incidentally, when it comes to humorous fiction for adults, then believe it or not, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is considered by some to be a classic example of a romantic comedy.
Surrealism/fantastical humour is another mainstay of humorous fiction. If you can inject a bit of surrealism into your novel or better still, set it in a wonderfully whacky world, as George MacDonald Fraser did with his swashbuckling novel, The Pyrates, then you are off to a good start in my view at least. The British comedian, Spike Milligan, gives us a great example of surrealist humour in the opening to his book, Puckoon. Published by Penguin Books, even the cover contains elements of surrealism, particularly the speech bubble that reads: “Buy Puckoon and stop penguins becoming extinct folks!” But, back to the opening paragraph:
“Several and a half metric miles North East of Sligo, split by a cascading stream, her body on earth, her feet in water, dwells the microcephalic community of Puckoon. This June of a Morning, the whole village awoke to an unexpected burst of hot weather.”
Spike Milligan had a wonderful turn of phrase and the world is a far poorer place for his passing. His anarchic use of words conjured up images and situations that verged on the absurd and were all the funnier because of it. Here is one more short example from Puckoon:
“Where are you goin’ to, sorr?”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Good, then you’ve arrived. Good night.”
Only someone with the mind of a Goon could come up with simple, silly brilliance like that.
Finally, there is dark comedy, which includes black humour. Black humour tends to be seen as a very British thing but it is starting to creep into a lot more international humorous fiction. Dark comedy tends to be characterised by grim situations and a morbid sense of humour. Although Drynwideon was marketed as a humorous fantasy fiction book, there are elements of dark humour running throughout it, not least of which is the appalling and pointless death of the supposed hero, Gonald the Mighty, at the end of the very first chapter.
Do’s and Don’ts for Writing Humorous Fiction
As with everything in this article, what follows is not an exhaustive list, but it should give you an idea about how I approach the subject of writing humorous fiction.
- Make sure that it makes you laugh. If it doesn’t then no one else will find it funny.
- Look for the unusual or absurd in day-to-day life and build on this.
- Ask yourself lots of ‘what if’ questions about the world around you.
- Play with names. Sometimes a great character or situation can come from this.
- Feel free to be crude, but keep it in context.
- Build on what has gone before, but don’t plagiarise.
- Get others to give you feedback before you publish (very important).
- Try to be funny. That doesn’t work, period.
- Restrict yourself to one type of humour. Mix it up a bit.
- Use offensive stereotypes.
- Be mean or nasty for the sake of a cheap laugh.
- Be afraid to push boundaries, but know when you’ve gone too far.
And, of course, remember the old adage: “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.”
Comedy is both intensely personal and doesn’t necessarily travel well, either in time or across the oceans, so even though you think that you have written one of the best humorous fiction books in the world, be prepared to accept that not everyone is going to find it funny.
How I Write Humorous Fiction
As far as I know, there isn’t a formula or a recipe for writing good humorous fiction and if there was then everyone would be doing it and the world would be a far more amusing place than it is today. So, in lieu of that magical guide, here is a quick outline of how I approach writing humorous fiction, using my Fotherington-Tomas series of short stories as an example.
First of all, I came up with the main character, Fotherington-Tomas. He originally appeared in a book called ‘How to be Topp’, which was published in the 1950s and was a simpering fop of a boy. I wrote a blog about that book and you can read it here for some valuable insights. I started off by wondering what it would be like if Fotherington-Tomas left school and became an archetypal British hero of the era, a sort of Sherlock Holmes meets James Bond, with lots of old-school English hobbies and achievements thrown in. Then I gave him a companion, Maxwell, simply because every British hero needs a cool-headed sidekick, if only to give them someone to talk to when things get a bit dull.
Having created the grown-up Fotherington-Tomas and Maxwell, I needed a world to put them in. I could have used England in the nineteen fifties, but then this wouldn’t have been very funny because it was where they belonged. Instead, I decided to locate Fotherington-Tomas in the modern world, but with all of the baggage and behaviour of a bygone era. Consequently, he prefers to ride around in a horse-drawn carriage, rather than a taxi, take the Orient Express, rather than fly and is a member of an exclusive gentleman’s club in London, called Haggrid’s — a deliberate misspelling, which I, at least find rather amusing given the mental image it conjures up.
Putting Fotherington-Tomas into today’s world allowed me to place an incongruous character into relatively mundane settings, with ridiculous results. So far, he has been drunk in Hamleys toy shop, played rugby at Oxford University, battled the London Underground and Eurostar, and taken centre stage at The Ashes cricket tournament at The Oval.
Of course, in order for Fotherington-Tomas to have an adventure, let alone a humorous one, he needs a villain, or group of villains, to battle. That was where playing with names came in. A bit of scribbling random ideas down on paper led to the creation of his nemesis, Doctor Mephostus and a host of other minor rogues, including Aldo Passlington, the Mad Monks of Mont Blanc, and the Iron Men of Kazrakastan among others.
Then there is Sarah, Fotherington-Tomas’ long suffering wife. Although she is only a minor character, she provides an essential foil to Fotherington-Tomas’ outrageous behaviour and in a future story, she will get the chance to put him well and truly in his place!
That is one of the joys of writing humorous fiction and humorous fiction short stories in particular. You have the freedom to do whatever you want in the world that you have created. It doesn’t have to follow all of the rules because the world doesn’t really exist and besides, the characters are ridiculous to begin with, so of course the rules don’t apply to them. Then it is only a case of letting your imagination run wild and taking inspiration from the world around you, in order to create silly story after silly story, hopefully to the delight of your wonderful readers… that’s you, in case you were wondering!
Writing Humorous Fiction for Kids
Writing humorous fiction for kids is a real challenge. Not only are children notoriously difficult to please, they don’t generally have the maturity to appreciate some of the more subtle forms of humorous fiction out there, such as satire, sarcasm and irony. This means that you really have to know your audience if you are going to successfully pull off a great piece of humorous fiction for kids. While I haven’t explicitly written any humorous fiction for kids, I have incorporated humour into the series of children’s stories which form The DATS Trilogy. In fact, one of the books, Death and the Atom Bomb was built around one scene involving a plate of chicken and chips. I would say more, but it’s probably a lot funnier if you actually read the book!
In short, I would advise that if you are thinking about writing humorous fiction for kids, then follow these suggestions:
- Keep it simple and silly.
- Focus on easy to understand humour such as slapstick, farce and exaggeration.
- Use visual humour wherever possible.
Eric Morecambe did this brilliantly in The Reluctant Vampire, with the two-headed dog. One head was called Fang, the other, Bruce. The single line, “Fang, fetch, Bruce, stay,” still makes me smile to this day.
Another great author who I would argue mastered humorous fiction for kids was Norman Hunter, with his Professor Branestawm books. They were simple, formulaic if you like, and used basic humour, including slapstick and exaggeration to get the point across. You can read more about Professor Branestawm in a blog I wrote, here.
Conclusion – Now That You Know Everything About Humorous Fiction
Humorous fiction is hard to write. Good humorous fiction even more so. It takes practice, imagination and lots of failure before you get it right. Some authors, such as the late Sir Terry Pratchett, achieved global fame and fortune because of their flair for finding the funny among the mundane. Others, such as Chris Whyatt and Jon Hillman have yet to find the audience that they deserve, but that does not stop them from creating wonderfully immersive and amusing stories at every opportunity. Then there are the countless others, myself among them, who write because we love it and hope to inspire a smile or two in those people who stumble upon our work (and make a bob or two in the process)!
I have only been writing professionally for a short time, but it has brought me immense pleasure as an author and is something that I hope to be able to continue for many years to come. I hope that you have found this little piece on the world of humorous fiction both entertaining and useful. If you have, then please do take a little time to have a look at my various books, even if it is only to thumb through the free sample chapters. Who knows, maybe you will find the inspiration for your next humorous fiction story in amongst them?
About Rob Gregory
Rob Gregory was born in the wilds of Bristol, England, in the mid-nineteen seventies and has spent the last four decades trying to find a way back to that blissful state of prenatal being. After a rich, varied and overly long education, which included spells at both Reading and Oxford Universities, he decided to go into television, despite having trained as a biologist. Needless to say, it was a short, yet potent career, which was brought to a juddering end when the television station in question made three-quarters of its staff redundant on January 2nd 2002. (NB. Rob had pulled a twelve hour night-shift on January 1st, so was understandably not best pleased by the announcement.)
Following that minor inconvenience, he got drunk with a friend and ended up in New Zealand, where he reinvented himself as a farm animal welfare expert in order to earn enough money to get back home. After fifteen years of hanging around deer, dairy cows and all manner of farmers, he still didn’t have enough money, so gave up and became a writer. Since then, he has spent most of his time writing what he hopes are compelling works of humorous fiction, with the ultimate aim of becoming one of the best humorous fantasy and fiction authors in the world. Wish him luck because he’s no spring chicken and would like to retire before his eightieth birthday!
Check out Rob’s blog here.