Writing: A Character’s Sense of Humor Is No Laughing Matter!

I’ve been plotting a novel (my first) for the last few months. I finally got to the point where I felt I could start writing it, and then summer vacation happened. Six weeks later, I am getting back to my novel and finding it difficult to get my head back into the right space for writing. 

Although I have all of my characters and their arcs, the themes, the major plot points, I can’t seem to find the thread into the telling. So I thought maybe researching how to structure a scene would help, but somewhere along the way, I found myself looking at my characters again—their wounds, their flaws, etc.—and do they really make sense? Will it really fuels the goals and conflicts?

Trying to answer these questions, I listened to a Jan. 17, 2017 podcast from The Seventh Draft about how to make characters come alive which suggested five things to learn about your characters: Sense of Humor, Three Main Emotions, Secrets, Quirks , and  Intensifiers.

Of course, after hearing hosts Juliet Ulman and Jon Armstrong describe how sense of humor, quirks and all add to a character’s unique voice and believability, I had to discover these things about my own characters, too. Little did I then realize how hard it would be to answer these questions, or on what a winding path they would lead me.

I have yet to make it past the first two items on this list. It’s no joke how hard it is to name or label a sense of humor. All of a sudden, I wasn’t even sure I knew any types of senses of humor. Well okay, there’s sarcastic humor, I got that—it’s in everything these days, but every character can’t be sarcastic.

Eventually, my brain offered up dry humor, puns, and dad jokes as other types of humor. But somehow when trying to state what a character’s sense of humor was, those labels just felt too amorphous. I needed more information.

It was time for an internet search! One of the first useful articles I found was Mark Nichols’ “20 Types and Forms of Humor,” on the Daily Writing Tips website. It’s a great list, with descriptions of each type of humor. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite solve the riddle of deciding on humor for me because some of the forms of humor aren’t a person’s sense of humor, they are more performances of humor, like stand-up, farcical, and screwball. Plus, while I really appreciated the descriptions, there weren’t any examples.

Who knew that examples of specific types of humor could be so hard to find? Not me—I thought the internet knew everything! Admittedly, there are many examples of dad humor, but that’s probably the one, after sarcasm, that I didn’t need examples of. I did find Sujata Iyer’s Social Mettle article, “Dry Humor—Characteristics, Identification and Examples,” which was pretty helpful. But my search for examples of droll humor was a bust—the only thing I could find were dictionary definitions and examples of how to use the word “droll” in a sentence. Not the examples I was hoping for.

In the bumper cars way of internet searches, I ended up finding a really interesting article on people’s sense of humor: “Test Yourself: Psychologists Created a Quiz to Define Your Sense of Humor,” by Roni Jacobson on The Cut website. This article described the work of psychology researcher Rod Martin, who determined that there are four basic types of humor that people use to help them deal with life and to navigate social situations: Affiliative, Self-Enhancing, Aggressive, and Self-Defeating.

The cool thing about the article was that it included a quiz you could take to see which type, or types, of humor you use. So of course I took it (I’m mostly Affiliative).

And Eureka! these ideas were truly helpful for determining my character’s humor—somehow having these larger categories that are tied more to personality and to the way humor is used made it easier for me to determine what type of humor the characters have. Well, at least it did for the characters whose personalities I know the best.

Turned out to be fruitful trip down the rabbit hole!

Links to things I referenced:

Five Things to Make Characters Come Alive: http://theseventhdraft.com/2017/01/

20 Types of Humor: https://www.dailywritingtips.com/20-types-and-forms-of-humor/

Dry Humor: https://socialmettle.com/dry-humor

Quiz to Define Your Humor: https://www.thecut.com/article/whats-your-humor-style.html

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