Writing a Tragicomedy

Is the glass half-full, or half-empty? If you’re of the half-empty persuasion, here’s how to write a tragicomedy.

If you’re the sort of writer who finds humour even in the face of pessimism, perhaps it’s time to consider writing a tragicomedy. Of course, some writers may find it inappropriate to find humour in tragic circumstances, but in some cases, you might be surprised to discover infusing tragicomic elements into your work might help your readers identify with your characters better, let alone improve the story itself.

For writers who aren’t natural humourists, writing a tragicomedy might seem counterintuitive. To that I say, if you’ve not got a slightly twisted sense of humour to start with, perhaps this genre is not for you. For others, the benefits of dabbling in tragicomedy are innumerable: there’s a richness of human experience it captures which, in my opinion, is closer to real-life than a ‘straight’ comedy or a ‘straight’ tragedy could ever convey.

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After all, the reasons tragicomedy came into existence as a hybrid genre are fairly understandable. Dating back to the 2nd century BC, even Roman playwright Plautus recognised the limitations of the original comedy and tragedy genres in the prologue of his play Amphitryon. Both genres could be seen as reductive, dramatically rigid, and narratively formulaic, hence why countless dramatists—from William Shakespeare (in The Merchant of Venice) to Samuel Beckett (in Waiting for Godot)—have preferred to produce work which aims to create a clever fusion of the two, mainly through their semi-humorous portrayal of tragicomic characters.

So what is it about tragicomedy which attracts writers to it so much? Why is it worth mixing comic elements with tragic subtexts, and vice versa? Arguably, it’s because it allows writers to push the boundaries of their chosen genre, to subvert standard conventions, and skirt the edges of their chosen narrative style to give readers something truly original to read. Most importantly, a tragicomedy allows us to recognise morality, or even life itself, is not black and white and does not conform itself to anyone’s expectations—it just is. With this in mind, here are three reasons why I think writers should consider writing a tragicomedy.

1. Comic moments can help lighten the mood

It’s inevitable that if you’re writing a story about difficult subjects—divorce, marital breakdown, death, murder, crime, etc.—your characters will provide a gateway into that world. Through their actions, thoughts, or feelings, the emotional parameters they express will nudge your reader towards a preferred interpretation of your story. Do you want readers to endure a misery-guts wading through a glum-fest? Are the topics you’re covering, and your characters’ responses to it, unconvincing, over-the-top, disheartening, or unrelentingly bleak? Dare I say it, but is there a risk they will see your character as one-dimensional as a result? It’s here where comic moments might help you. Try using the occasional line of dry wit, or amusing dialogue. Add unusual or ironic observations in difficult scenes which, in context, might seem inconsequential, or out-of-place. These small, comic subtleties will prove to readers that your character is a human being. People will try anything, from gallows’ humour to self-denial, on their journey to rationalising their own experiences. It’s here where fashioning such tragicomic moments out of your story will really come into its own.

2. Humour can temper self-seriousness

The last thing any writer wants to be accused of is pretentiousness, but there’s always a risk if you’re trying to invoke dramatic tension from a range of difficult topics; people will be more inclined to scoff, particularly if they detect too many po-faces in the mix. With humour, however, you can at least sweeten the pill. If you include a character for comic relief, for example, that will give your readers some respite from the story’s more tragic plot points. Even the odd joke or two won’t risk jettisoning the more serious aspects of your story; if anything, it will give your character an endearing facet to relate to in the face of despair. Writing a tragicomedy therefore can allow you to have your foot in both camps—one foot can build dramatic tension, the other foot can occasionally use light humour to build character—with equal weight given to both. It’s a simple case of ‘yin’ and ‘yang.’

3. Tragicomic stories can open the door to a happy ending

Traditionally, tragedies inevitably lead to the death of a main character, or at the very least, to a negative outcome. For comedies, however, the opposite is true and they usually have happy endings, in spite of all the tribulations. Writing a tragicomedy can be useful for writers who, morally speaking, feel the need to tackle weighty themes worthy of a tragedy, whilst still retaining their sense of humour. Or maybe you just want to create a knockabout tragicomedy in a post-apocalyptic, radiation-sickness-addled world in which everyone dies. It doesn’t really matter if your sense of humour gives you enough faith to believe in a world where happy endings are possible. What matters most is whether pointing out life’s subtle ironies—those small moments of laughter—either overtly or covertly, can help give your story more meaning than it would otherwise have. If this sounds like it sums up how you already see the world, try writing a tragicomedy and see if the shoe fits. If it does, running with it should be a breeze.

Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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