While humor occasionally seems out of place in heavier stories, it all depends on its use. Stories almost always need some laughter. But that's all easy to say, harder to practice in writing. So here's a breakdown of five common types of humor I see in stories — wit, banter, sardonic, absurd, and caricature — plus how to use them to their best effect.
“Are you certain you want something so, er, ambitious?” the man asked.
“Is ambition such an unseemly attribute in a young woman?”
“Well, no, I suppose not.” He smiled again—the thick, toothy smile of a merchant trying to put someone at ease. “I can see you are a woman of discriminating taste.”
“I am,” Shallan said, voice firm though her heart fluttered. Was she destined to get into an argument with everyone she met? “I do like my meals prepared very carefully, as my palate is quite delicate.”
“Pardon. I meant that you have discriminating taste in books.”
“I’ve never eaten one, actually.”
“Brightness, I believe you are having sport with me.”
“Not yet I’m not. I haven’t even really begun.”
“Brightness…I believe you stray into sarcasm.”
“Funny. I thought I’d run straight into it, screaming at the top of my lungs.”
— The Way of Kings, Brandon Sanderson
Wit is what you'd typically think of in most character-based humor. Often situational, it presents itself in quick one-liners, sass, comebacks, snark, and other individual-based lines. Think Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, Wit from the Stormlight Archive, and honestly almost every crew ever—Kaz, let's go with Kaz. Kaz Brekker from Six of Crows.
This builds more than a strong voice for your characters — it builds presence. While making your character more likable, it also serves to make them noticeable on the page, not to mention more human.
Jesper knocked his head against the hull and cast his eyes heavenward.
“Fine. But if Pekka Rollins kills us all, I’m going to get Wylan’s ghost to teach my ghost how to play the flute just so that I can annoy the hell out of your ghost.”
Brekker’s lips quirked. “I’ll just hire Matthias’ ghost to kick your ghost’s ass.”
“My ghost won’t associate with your ghost,” Matthias said primly, and then wondered if the sea air was rotting his brain.
--Crooked Kingdom, Leigh Bardugo
In the instance of YA, this is typically what everyone thinks of at the mention of "humor" in a narrative. Most doable with a solid crew throughout the arc of the story, this can serve to showcase chemistry as well as development among a cast. Helping to fill scenes the whole way through with micro-pacing, banter never gets old and can be sprinkled through the whole journey.
Let's talk about the distinction between banter and wit. While wit focuses more on exposition and characterization of the individual, banter tends to be more balanced, relying on the interaction between more than one person. While wit tends to be used for adding presence, banter can mark high points in a story, moments of hope, or laughter, even in dire situations. Showing the friendship your characters speak of fighting for in the darkest turns of the narrative — it gives the reader something to latch on to, to care.
"Because you’re a ruthless, plotting, bitter, twisted, self-pitying villain? You asked."
"The question was meant to be rhetorical."
"I would trust each one of these men with my own birth giving mother!"
"Eh, she's been dead for years, what more could they do to her now?" Shivers heaved out a sigh. “Just trying to make tomorrow that bit better than today is all. I’m one of those … you’ve got a word for it, don’t you?”
“Idiots?” He looked sideways at her. “It was a different one I had in mind.”
“That’s the one. I’m an optimist.”
“How’s it working out for you?” “Not great, but I keep hoping.”
“That’s optimists. You bastards never learn."
— Best Served Cold, Joe Abercrombie
Sardonic humor's strength shows when highlighting themes and messages in a story. It's cynical, ironic, and dry, not shying away from the grimmer parts of the world or characters the story takes place within. Whether used structurally — overarching repetition of incidences — or closely — in one-liners expressing dry observations — it serves to hammer home an opinion while framing it nicely in a grim wince-laugh.
"Well, did you say it or didn't you?'' he asked.
"I think so,'' said Arthur.
"Well, perhaps we're both going mad.''
"Yes,'' said Arthur, ``we'd be mad, all things considered, to think this was Southend.''
"Well, do you think this is Southend?''
"So do I.''
"Therefore we must be mad.''
"Nice day for it.''
"Yes,'' said a passing maniac.
"Who was that?'' asked Arthur
"Who --- the man with the five heads and the elderberry bush full of kippers?''
"I don't know. Just someone.''
— The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The type of humor that slaps you in the face. One absurd coincidence after another, and you've got a chain of events that begs you to laugh. Often combined with a distinct narrative tone and voice, it appeals to many that want some humor while forgetting the world they live in.
What?! Of course you can. Sure you’re a bit scrawny, unpopular, and still can’t tie your shoelaces without adult supervision, but you’re also the bestest, most loyal little Nazi I’ve ever met. Not to mention you’re incredibly handsome."
--JoJo Rabbit, Taika Waititi
What would you get if you mixed sardonic humor with a bit of absurdism's imaginative, wacky tone? Probably a caricature. Caricature humor is most often used in narratives through character, serving to make a clear point while subverting otherwise heavy, grim, or taboo subjects with laughter. Since it's unmistakably a joke, it's often easier to get comfortable around caricatured characters. A great example of this being used throughout a narrative is the movie Jojo Rabbit, specifically its take on Hitler.
Humor has its uses and place everywhere in a story, usually no matter how heavy. Laughter itself is a shared experience that makes for a memorable experience. It should probably have at least some screen time in your story.
is a writer and self-dubbed professional daydreamer. Her work has appeared in Unpublished Magazine and Paper Crane Journal, among others. She is also a staff writer at Outlander Magazine.