The importance of humour and wit

Why writers should embrace humour

A submissions editor for a literary journal recently revealed on Reddit a list of submissions that editors get sick of reading, as well as things they want to see in submissions. One of these was humour:

Humour/wit: there is almost a complete lack of humour in many (most) subs, because writers think that weighty prose = good literature and pile it on like Giles Corey’s jailers. I’m not saying every sub has to have jokes or even moments of levity. Even deadly serious pieces of good writing can make a reader laugh by using a sharp wit rather than direct humour

Many less experienced writers feel that to write something of literary ‘worth’ or merit, they need to be serious. But this isn’t the case. Being serious all the time does not give your work any more authority or weight.

Consider these literary classics, which often make it onto ‘Best Ever’ or ‘World’s Favourite’ lists:

  • ‘Pride & Prejudice’ by Jane Austen
  • ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens
  • ‘Brideshead Revisited’ by Evelyn Waugh
  • ‘Macbeth’ by William Shakespeare

None of these would ever be described as ‘comic novels’ or filed into the humour section. But they all contain distinctly humorous and comical elements. How?

Ways to include humour

Character: a character may be presented as absurd. Consider Mrs Bennet in ‘Pride & Prejudice’. She is excruciating and pathetic but also funny. When she exposes herself, the reader cringes and winces for her daughters, but also laughs. Or consider pompous Uncle Pumblechook in ‘Great Expectations’ (Dickens’ character names are frequently deliberately absurd).

Situation: a clash of context, or conflict between characters can often be extremely funny.  In ‘Brideshead Revisited’, when Charles’ friend comes to dinner, Charles’ eccentric father plays a little game of pretending the friend is American. In ‘Macbeth’, there’s a humorous scene with a drunken porter making lewd jokes. The levity of this serves to emphasise the drama and darkness of the scenes that surround it.

Sarcasm: sarcasm is supposedly the ‘lowest form of wit’ but it’s still wit, and many readers enjoy it. You can use it in the narrative voice or through a character’s words and actions.

Humour helps you emotionally connect with a reader. It’s one more button you can press. Consider the power of satire: a cartoon or parody or lampooning poem can be much more influential in arousing anger or outrage than a straight, earnest rant.

Lightening the mood before landing a huge, heavy shock on the reader can also make that surprise far more of an emotional gut-punch.

It’s also a way to make a character likeable, even if they’re otherwise villainous. I once saw a production of ‘Othello’ where Iago was portrayed with so much wit that he became more sympathetic than Othello. You wanted him to come out on top, because he was smart and funny. This is a great way to really mess with a reader’s head and create far more depth and complexity in your characters. Consider how sarcastic and witty many Disney villains are, and all their evil cackles of laughter.

So think about where you could add humour to your own work. Even in the middle of tragedy there is often absurdity, and it only serves to heighten the tragedy.


Originally published on SSOA

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