Creating Humorous Characters
There are no hard and fast rules to writing humorous characters, so I try to keep it simple. Firstly, you have to be able to identify a fallibility in the human soul, either in yourself or in others around you. What is it which makes people strong? What is it which makes people weak? What would an aberration of these qualities look like? The answers to these questions will allow you to unearth a personality trait which is worthy of caricature.
Secondly, you’ll need to identify in what particular situations might those fallible qualities be exacerbated. What would it look like if a trait became perverted in some way? You can start by imagining a character in such a scenario where a source of amusement resides from watching their strengths or weaknesses go haywire. That’s where you’ll find humour. Then you can go back to step one again: identify another fallibility, create a new character, and so on. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Admittedly, not all writers will be able to write humour as naturally as others, but the above starting points will help you start creating humorous characters which are grounded in something real, even relatable. However, that’s not the end of it—your next step will be to build upon what you’ve identified and develop them further.
1. Accentuate a trait
One of the easiest ways to start making a character humorous is to exaggerate the personality trait you see as most potent. For example, miserliness is accentuated in Dr. Ebenezer Scrooge to make his uncharitableness a source of bemusement to the reader. This, to some, can be humorous. Even grumpiness is accentuated with sour-faced pensioner Victor Meldrew in the TV show ‘One Foot in the Grave,’ causing the viewer to be amused by his curmudgeonly outlook.
Depending on how accentuating such a specific trait impacts on how your character is portrayed, you’ll always need to be considering how to shine a comical angle on your character’s flaws. A further example can be found in John Kennedy Toole’s book A Confederacy of Dunces, where the pomposity of Ignatius J. Reilly leads him to feel superior to everyone else in the book, whereas it’s obvious to the reader he is essentially a slob. Exaggeration, in this case, is an ally.
2. Make them foolish
The notion of the Shakespearean fool has a longstanding history, in some cases functioning as a means of imparting wisdom from the unlikeliest of characters (e.g. King Lear’s fool). In comedies, however, fools are built around misunderstanding—their tendency is to bungle and to botch, behaving in ways which seem at odds with the reader’s own understanding of how to handle a situation.
Now, it’s up to you whether the trait you’ve identified in your character makes them foolish or not. Ultimately, however, a fool should evoke humour by misinterpreting situations and mishandling relationships in the story. It sounds a bit unfair to label Adrian Mole a fool in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾, given that he’s barely a teenager, but that’s exactly what he is. A lot of the humour in that book stems from Adrian’s naivety (occasionally surfacing as stupidity) and the arrogance of his intellectual ambitions. That’s foolish by anyone’s definition.
3. Embrace cynicism
There’s no easy way to interpret foolishness as anything other than a weakness, whereas there is some strength in cynicism. Cynicism gives your character some power—an awareness, or an arch detachment. So if you’ve identified a dominant trait (such as intelligence, greed, or even arrogance) which might elevate your character above others, by all means, don’t shy away from cynical humour.
That’s not to say the reader won’t be able to see your character as flawed either way: We all know Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho possesses a cynical narrative voice dripping with acerbic bile, and the reader recognises he is a monstrous distortion of ’80s yuppiedom, long before his murderous impulses make this even more apparent. The point is, if the fallibility you have identified in your character demands they retain power over others, then cynical humour is a good option. If that’s the case, you will find humour there somewhere.
There are, of course, countless other ways to create humorous characters. However, the above steps tend to be the methodology I rely on most. They may not be the most nuanced of methods, but it helps lay down the necessary building blocks for potential humour. In the end, there are no right answers. But if something in your gut amuses you about the character you’re creating, then you won’t go far wrong. Just trust your comedic instincts. It’s all fun and games anyway.
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© 2018 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.