I keep hearing that it is important to put humour in your writing. At first I found this puzzling. I don’t write comedy, and I don’t think I’d be very good at it. Don’t get me wrong, I love to laugh, but making up my own jokes? That’s not my thing. I started to wonder how others do it.Then one night while watching an episode of the TV series Fringe, I had a moment of revelation. It’s no great secret and everyone else probably already knew this, but I think it’s an important point. In drama, humour often comes from the characters. Simple as that.
Take the character of Doctor Walter Bishop, played by Aussie actor John Noble. He is actually quite a serious dramatic character with a great deal of depth, yet most of the show’s humour comes from him because he’s also rather quirky. Having spent many years in a mental institution there is a lot about today’s world that is unfamiliar to him. That in itself leads to plenty of humour. Doctor Bishop doesn’t fit it, and he’s a bit of an enigma. He needs to be cared for like a child, he’s seems to constantly obsess over the insignificant, and yet he is brilliant and does things that nobody else in the cast can do. I think the reason this works so well is that Bishop is not just a device for the writers to share jokes, all of the humour comes directly from his character and the way he relates to others.
Another example where this is done very well is Doctor Who. This show is a fun adventure romp but it has never been an outright comedy. In fact, there are times when the show can get downright dark and edgy. Through all of this, The Doctor himself always has me laughing. The way he talks, the way he sees the world, it’s all very funny. In my opinion he is one of the most quotable characters in TV history.
Looking back, the first example of this phenomenon I came across was Lethal Weapon 3. This movie would see-saw from hilarious moments with Mel Gibson’s character, to painful dramatic moments like when the friend of the son of Danny Glover’s character was killed. I remember seeing this film many years ago and marvelling that a movie could include such pain and still make me laugh. How could the two co-exist in the same story?
Writing a humorous character is not without its skill of course, but it does seem to me that the way to inject humour into a dramatic story is definitely to use character.
FOX promotional photograph of Walter Bishop (played by John Noble).
Sourced from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Walter_Bishop.jpg