Humor in Fantasy Fiction

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Brian Wood

Brian Wood

Brian Wood’s first novel, Dreamworld, has been described as witty, clever and humorous.  I recently chatted with Brian about his novel, as well as the challenge of balancing humor and drama in a fantasy story.

How did you become interested in writing fantasy? 

In the sixth grade my brother Drew gave me a copy of The Eye of The World by Robert Jordan, and I was hooked for life. As for writing, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I became interested in possibly writing a fantasy novel of my own. After a few months and a couple of interesting reads, a truly unique idea literally dropped into my head while I was at a Mexican resort with my wife. After that, I had no choice but to write my series. Otherwise, the idea would have burnt a hole inside of me. It just happens that Dreamworld, my debut novel, was the first piece of writing (of any kind) that I ever wrote that was longer than ten pages.

When you set out to write Dreamworld, did you plan to include an element of humor?

Actually, no I did not. When the idea came to me for Dreamworld, I told my wife Chrystal and my mom about the first book before starting the manuscript. There was nothing about humor in my outline. But I had a pretty good idea that the book was going to be funny after the first page. In fact, I remember telling my wife, “You know what? Trayvian (my main character) is pretty damn funny.” I think most readers agree.

If the humor wasn’t planned, then where did it come from?

I honestly think the humor came from my own personality. Dreamworld is in the first person, and while Trayvian is certainly a unique character, the two of us do share a common idea about what is funny.

I think humor is a big part of my voice as an author. Now the books have expanded to other points of view, but writing from Trayvian’s POV is as comfortable as a good pair of blue jeans.

Tell us a little about the humor in the book.  What style or category would it fall into? 

I would say the category that most of my humor falls into would be sarcasm. Tray has a self-deprecating, sarcastic sense of humor.

However, there is also a lot of situational humor. In Tray’s dreams, he lives in a medieval type fantasy world (think Lord of the Rings or Wheel of Time), but he speaks like an American teenager. Our language and slang create some pretty funny situations for Trayvian.

Saying something as simple as “what’s up?” can bring about some very odd responses.

Did you ever find yourself going too far with the comedy, and had to pull it back somewhat? 

There were definitely times when I went a little too. In fact, I’m kind of known for going too far as a jokester in my daily life, so I guess crossing the line in my writing was inevitable. Most instances were very small things within dialogue or thoughts, but there were some instances where the humor didn’t fit with the tone of the scene.

One specific example occurred in the first chapter of Dreamworld, when Trayvian is describing himself to the reader. The first draft said something like, “I’m thin, but not crack-whore skinny.” The book says something like, “I’m thin, but not crazy skinny.” My editor didn’t feel like crack whore was appropriate (and I grudgingly agree), or at the very least it wasn’t very classy.

How can you sense when you’ve gone too far?

I don’t think I’m very good at that particular skill the first time through. I tend to write what comes to mind first, which is when my best ideas hit. It is usually not until I self-edit that I realize that maybe I need a little more of a filter. For everything else, I count on my editor. I have final say, but I tend to agree with those paid to professionally edit. I figure that smart people surround themselves with talented, amazing people. And I figure that I’m smart.

Let’s talk about the concept of humor.  What purpose does humor serve in a fantasy novel?

Humor does many things for a fantasy novel or literature in general:

  • Humor diversifies a novel. Some people like drama, some people like action, some revelation, plot twists, or humor. Nearly everyone likes a novel with all of these elements. Even in the saddest story, people need the relief of a laugh sometimes. The more diverse your novel, the more diverse your potential audience.
  • Humor can endear your characters to the reader. In my specific case, Trayvian uses humor as a defense mechanism for the sorry state of his life. This allows the reader to feel for him and his situation while simultaneously being entertained by his humor. A diverse character draws more people, and a diverse character is usually funny in some manner or another.
  • Humor can keep a story moving. An entire book cannot be action or entertainment. A good novel has depth, leaving a reader with more to ponder than a B-level action movie. During these ‘slower’ times when you can potentially lose a reader, good humor can keep the pages turning while your reader is finding depth in your world.
  • Specifically in fantasy, humor adds validity to your world. If a person or creature can be funny to a human reader here on earth, then the reader is more likely to extend their disbelief and give the character, and world, a chance.
  • Humor is escape, which is why people pick up a fantasy novel in the first place. People need to laugh. It’s actually physically good for us.
  • Finally, people like funny. If someone laughs out loud at a book, I want to read that book. I don’t need to know anything else.

Practically speaking, how do you create humor?

I honestly don’t think about humor in my writing. There are many elements that I do plan, but humor isn’t one of them. In my opinion, the very best humor is spontaneous. Obviously, there are comedians who write jokes and deliver them with timing and energy, but my humor is ad-libbed. I find it very difficult to be funny on demand, but most of the time it just… happens. Nearly every funny part of Dreamworld was unplanned.

How do you keep humor from ruining the tone of an otherwise serious fantasy storyline?

I make sure the humor is coming from the genuine personality of my characters, and that it fits the moment. As my series progresses, the stakes continue to get higher and good friends are lost along the way. Obviously, there is less chance for humor in these instances. It would be pretty cold-hearted if your character’s humor didn’t change when personal tragedy struck.

Do you have any advice for new authors who are seeking to incorporate humor into their novels?

Go with your instinct and let the people you trust say if you’ve gone too far. I think your writing has to reflect your humor, personality, and beliefs to a certain extent. If you are a funny person, then it shouldn’t be too difficult to be funny in print. As an author, sometimes writing is a struggle, and you have to fight through periods of time where nothing comes easy. But in my opinion, humor isn’t one of those things. It can’t be forced; it can’t be a struggle.

Humor must come naturally when written so that it can be read in the same manner. To me a lot of authors try too hard with their humor and it is glaringly obvious when you read what they’ve written. Strive for easy humor that fits in the story, adding to your voice without taking anything away.

Is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers?

Have fun writing. There’s a good chance that you’ll never support yourself by writing alone, so weaving a story needs to be something that you utterly enjoy. I’m not saying that it will be painless, but it needs to be more fun than it is struggle and stress. Write because you love to write.

Oh, and one more thing. Check out this book called Dreamworld. I hear it’s awesome.  ;)

To learn more about Brian Wood and Dreamworld, visit The Chronicles of Trayvian James.

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Antonio del Drago

Antonio del Drago is a writer, philosopher and professor. His latest book, The Mythic Guide to Characters: Writing Characters Who Enchant and Inspire, is now available.

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4 comments
Trayvian James
Trayvian James

betsdavies, I would argue that it would be impossible for you to know if your characters are funny if you yourself didn't have a sense of humor (how do you like that grammar?). Maybe you're a closet comedian? :)

Trayvian James
Trayvian James

Thanks Map. Tasslehoff Burrfoot is one of my all-time favorite characters. 

Map the Dragon
Map the Dragon

Having read Dreamworld a number of times, I can say without a doubt, it maintains a good mixture of humor with the other elements that make fantasy lit so fun. I like the thought here on the incorporation of humor. Often, my favorite characters in fantasy are born of comedic relief (think Tas from Dragonlance). Unlike those creation, Wood's humor is more balanced and natural--which speaks to the validity mentioned here. His world seems so real, because it is naturally open to the scope of human experience and emotion, humor among them.

betsdavies
betsdavies

For me, I am not funny.  My characters are.  I don't insert any humor into a situation that the characters aren't seeing/creating just by who they are.  Okay, sometimes I'll step over that boundary, but in general I think that is what keeps me in line.  Because, frankly, I can't make it through anything--reading, writing, watching without some kind of humor--even gallows humor about it.

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