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Getting Damned Serious About Humor

March 16, 2018
Raymond Chandler smiling

The great Raymond Chandler, smirking

Some months ago, I was talking to my friend, Karen, about this epic romance I’m writing. You know, the one I can’t shut up about because it’s been consuming me for about three years. Karen is a writer, too. A huge talent, in fact, and one of the best readers I’ve ever come across. She also knows me pretty well.

She knows how much I love Raymond Chandler, for instance. The way I’m in awe of his skill at weaving humor into the lives of some gritty characters with pretty depressing outcomes.

“She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.”

“He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”

“Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl’s clothes off.” –all by Raymond Chandler

But we were talking about romance, as I said. Not thrillers. And the kind of romance with a lot of history in it. Maybe some fantasy and sci-fi mixed in to make the story more like an Indian chutney than a fancy ketchup. And I was just squeaking towards the finish line of my first draft, complaining that it was about as rough as Richard Nixon’s five o’clock shadow.

“You’ve got to read Diana Gabaldon,” she said. “Not only because your series has a historical component,” she told me. “But you have a strong point of view on humor, and I think you’ll find a like mind and some inspiration in her books.”

She was right, of course. My friend Karen is right about a lot of things: feminism, our Founding Fathers, Emily Dickinson and any kind of editorial advice, just to name a few.

outlander series

There’s a lot to be in awe of when reading the Outlander novels. Their length and subsequent ability to hold our interest, the fact that men and women can both enjoy them (swear!), that she doesn’t shy away from sex or violence, yet doesn’t make either gratuitous. That she writes character-driven books with great atmospherics. And yes, that she writes with a heavy dose of humor.

Humor isn’t just something meant to make us feel good. It is defiant, subversive and smarter than we are. Through humor we can say things we’re too afraid to say. It allows us to speak truths that polite society won’t tolerate and reminds us that no word or circumstance can hold power over us. Humor is such an essential element to getting us through the hard times, to making us more resilient, more compelling.  It brings us together, makes us closer, foments friendships. A sense of humor will make a potential lover want to introduce you to his friends, take you in a twirling, spinning hug, kiss you with joy.

Such is its power. More than beauty, because it outlasts our youth. More than sorrow, because it gives us a reason to keep going.

As a reader, I can’t imagine sticking with a series if it didn’t employ a sense of humor that bonded me to characters and their worlds. As a writer, I find humorless prose exhausting and depleting. Often sanctimonious, or uninspired. It drains me to read such passages, let alone have to conjure them.

The best authors weave humor through the fabric of even the most heart wrenching, serious stories. They may do it subtly, through irony perhaps, but they do it. I think of Orwell’s 1984, anything by Ernest Hemingway, The Great Gatsby, Shakespeare, Twain, whose humor is often wrongly mistaken for racism, and even Herodotus.



That’s why, as I was reading the Outlander series, I was especially struck by one part that illustrated to me why it’s crucial to maintain a sense of humor, even when you’re writing about a topic or event that’s downright horrifying.

In this particular segment of the story, one of Gabaldon’s characters is being raped. And potentially by more than one man.

Not. Funny.

However, Gabaldon uses humor in such a graceful way, that she not only keeps from degrading or making light of the severity of the situation, but actually gives it greater meaning. As her heroine is being abused by this group of very bad men, one of these desperados fails miserably in his quest to rape her. The heroine actually quips to herself about his complete sexual incompetence, then remarks upon her own good fortune of this having happened to her in middle age. “Twenty years ago, there would’ve been a much longer line,” she says to herself.

That bit of humor brings humanity and hope to a soul-crushing set of circumstances. As a reader, it lends me a hand in getting through a terrible incident with a character I’ve grown to love. I want to believe that our heroine will prevail, or at least emerge from her ordeal intact somehow; it’s her sense of humor that helps me look what is happening right in the eye.

Because that’s what humor does for us in our own lives.

dark humor 4

By Gary Larson

“Oh, please,” you might say. “No one can have a sense of humor while when they’re about to be raped.”

Allow me to step out of the realm of fiction and back into real life in order to answer that.

“While one of his men held me down, this Russian officer took out a mirror and leaned it against a rock. Removing a brush and cake of soap from his canvas bag, he began to lather, spreading this luxurious foam all over his chin and jaw. He took his time. Then he pulled a razor from his belt and began to shave. Ah, a sophisticated rapist, I thought to myself. Isn’t that the height of cosmic sarcasm?” –Dina Babbit, holocaust survivor, on the prospect of being raped by a Russian officer, only days after her liberation from Auschwitz.

This is why, as I embark on editing my romance – the one filled with war and passion and heartbreak and history and pitiless violence perpetrated by corrupt individuals – my writer’s eye is trained on giving my characters a balls-out sense of the absurd. Bringing a dark bit of crackpot levity into a situation – even when there doesn’t seem to be room for anything but tears and screams.


Please have a look at my vlog, Love at First Write. It’s an ongoing series that chronicles my efforts to write an epic romance. I’d love to hear your comments.

  1. This: ‘Humor isn’t just something meant to make us feel good. It is defiant, subversive and smarter than we are. Through humor we can say things we’re too afraid to say. It allows us to speak truths that polite society won’t tolerate and reminds us that no word or circumstance can hold power over us.’ Humour is how we assert our humanity and our spirit, no matter who or where we are.

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