Humor is Up to the Reader by Roz Denny Fox

Humor is popular. Humor sells. Magazine and book editors say they are always on the lookout for work that genuinely tickles their funny bone. I like a story that lets me laugh. I don’t care for raucous or slapstick, but I appreciate a book that if I’m alone in a room, I am moved to laugh out loud. Some people have a gift for being funny when speaking or writing, like the late Erma Bombeck. When I consider romance writers whose work makes me laugh, Jennifer Cruise and Susan Elizabeth Phillips stand out.
I’ve attended workshops over the years, billed as how to inject humor in stories. In so doing I discovered there are many types of humor. As writers we need to decide which kind, if any, works for us, or more importantly, for our characters. Funny incidents in our books flow out of the character. In a recent study as to why one person falls for another, number one listed is that the other person makes them laugh. In your book consider:
laugh-at-life humor. The character doesn’t take himself too seriously. If something bad happens, the character takes a deep breath and looks for the absurd in the situation.
There’s bonding-in-the-moment humor. One character’s outlook will be, we’re in this together and isn’t it fun? The writer will make use of witticisms or lighthearted remarks.
Slapstick comedy is more difficult to pull off in a book. It relies on pranks and physical humor that is totally in the eye of the beholder.
Sarcasm is often perceived by others as dark and biting. It’s better used for a secondary character since it can come off sounding harsh.
Self-deprecating humor requires only a line or two that shows a character is comfortable making fun of himself. It only works in small doses, so use sparingly.
Deadpan type is tough to pull off in a book. In real life people around someone who delivers a hysterically funny line without cracking a smile, often is unsure if their joking.
Jokes at others’ expense. This is really tricky in a book or in life. The person who is the butt of a joke rarely finds it laughable. And saying, ‘just kidding’ doesn’t dull the sting.
Dark/Gallows humor is most often grim and depressing, or deals with misfortune and even death. I attended a workshop on ‘dark humor’ and quickly decided it would be difficult for me to write a wholly pessimistic character.
Situational I see this most often in a book since a reader likes to laugh at something funny that accidentally happens between protagonists.
Quirky/cultural  Again, better used for a secondary character, or walk-on because it takes someone with the same appreciation of unconventional humor to judge the incident or scene funny.
So, what is my purpose for blogging about using humor in books? To show that humor is popular and if used with care it can enhance or define certain characters. However, all types of humor can be done-to-death. It’s best sprinkled into a story judiciously. In a romance it can be used well, for instance, if shown on a first date. It works to bring in weird Aunt Maude, or a bumbling co-worker, or sometimes a near psychotic pet. When salting in humor, think outside the box. And in the end you still want your reader to care about your comedic situation or funny character. You want the reader to visualize the situation and think it funny.


  1. Wow, Roz, I never thought about how many different kinds of humor there are in books -- but you're right that each one has its own place and its own audience.

    I'm always bothered when a friend says "that was the funniest book; I couldn't put it down" and all I get when reading it is an occasional smile, so now that difference makes more sense. Thanks!

  2. I remembering reading a book that had me laughing so hard that I told everyone they had to read one else thought it was as funny as I did. Humor is definitely a personal preference.

    I love how you talk about the different kinds of humor. I never gave it much thought before but you make some excellent points. Thanks for highlighting something that's important, but we don't think about often.

  3. Great resource, Roz. Very well done!

    I think any time you try to FORCE humor the story suffers. I was mortified by the black humor in my current series, but the circumstances came about organically in the course of the story and the readers I've heard from said it worked for them. Whew!

    Thanks for the interesting blog.


  4. Great post, Roz! I never thought about types of humor which kinds work well a d when! We are so lucky to get to learn from you through your terrific insights and generously shares knowledge. I like situational, we are in it together,and some sarcasm though, as you said, that is probably best for secondary characters :)

  5. Hey all, I'm glad to have found a subject that shed some new light. For me it's the same with comedians. I like the dry humor of John Stewart and Bill Maar (unless he gets too off color) I used to love George Carlin. But other comics that some people love, I just don't find them funny.

  6. Great post. I don't like it when I can tell the writer has had to work at being funny, which is totally unfair, but it's true that different kinds of humor belong with varying people and places.

  7. My husband has always made me laugh. And I can make him laugh, too--usually without even trying. I put humor high in what I tell people when I'm asked about the secrets to a long and happy marriage. I mean, if you can't laugh...

    Great blog, Roz!

  8. Great summary of humor, Roz. I'm going to keep a copy of it handy. I like the kind of humor that has me still chuckling later. Irony and exaggeration are great sources of fun.

  9. Nice post, Roz! Hadn't thought about it before, but I think I like deadpan humor the best - when a character comes back with a very straight but just slightly out of sync rejoinder.

    I think the trickiest bit in writing humor is that so much depends on reader perception. I remember reading the first "Hitchhiker" book and thinking..."that's funny???" Until I listened to the Douglas Adams audio recording on a cross-country drive. His phrasing had me rolling on the floor, which was not the best idea, all things considered....

    Thanks for the cool overview!
    -Vicky L

  10. Roz, a great post! I love finding humor in books as well as authors who handle it well. I'm thinking of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum mysteries, and I enjoy Jennifer Crusie (her "Welcome to Temptation" had me in stitches) and Susan Elizabeth Phillips. I think they also handle the poignant moments really well too.

  11. Syndi, great addition of Janet Evanovich. Muriel emailed me because she couldn't get on the blog today. Janet Evanovich was one of her favorite "funny" writers, too.

  12. I had no idea there were that many different kinds of humor. Great bit of research you had to do to write this blog, but I'm glad you did. I really learned a lot and I know everyone else did too.

    Thank you for sharing.

  13. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about writing humor. It is so difficult to do. But you are so right when you say humor is different for each of us. What one person thinks is funny isn't for another. But I think that depend upon experiences. so the trick is finding the universal tidbits. You do that well.

  14. Another person who read the blog just emailed me to remind me about Rachel Gibson's humor in her books, and it's so true, as well as Vicki Lewis Thompson. I really admire the authors who consistently can make me smile or laugh out loud in a book.

  15. I'm back! Talk about humor! Long, funny story but not necessary here! LOVE humor. Jill Barnett, Jane Austen, screenwriter William Goldman (Year of the Comet - anyone seen that but me with Penelope Ann Miller and Tim Daley)

    Great post Roz! Always learn a lot from you!

  16. Never knew there were so many different kinds of humor. Some I don't find amusing in real life so I don't want my hero and heroine participating in slapstick, for example. But I love a book where I'm laughing out loud. Thanks for the info, Roz.


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