Writing Right with Dmitri: Laughing With or Laughing At?

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Words, words, words. That's what we're made of. Herewith some of my thoughts on what we're doing with them.

Writing Right with Dmitri: Laughing with or Laughing at?

A man in green with a feather in one hand and drawing a theatre curtain with the other

This just in: making fun of innocent victims is not a sign of a 'wonderful sense of humour' – no matter how many times you repeat this mantram. Sorry, folks: making fun of things other people can't help just makes you a bully. If you think your neighbour's speech defect is hilarious, keep it to yourself. Otherwise, you will be startled someday when you overhear your children making cruel fun of your own tendencies. They will have learned it from you. In other words, don't refuse to learn compassion. Someday, you might need it yourself. End of sermon.

Now, what does that have to do with writing? A lot, actually. We want our writing to be known for its wit and humour, of course we do. And many, many people mistake taking cheap shots at the infirm, handicapped, or just plain other for humour. So, before we can decide how to write humorously, we need to define what isn't humorous.

The following things are never funny. If you think they are, go read somebody else.

  • Laughing at someone else's injury or pain. It is called Schadenfreude. This is never humorous, but can be used to denigrate your character, if you wish to show that he/she is ethically challenged.
  • Laughing at someone's attempt to fit in with a group, only to be foiled by his/her inability to figure out the secret handshake. Include the information that your character finds this sort of thing hilarious only if you want to out the character as an unlikeable snob.
  • Laughing at someone else merely for being different. Eschew the inclusion of 'funny foreigners', amusingly and patronizingly portrayed persons who are elderly, have different tastes or cultural habits from your own, or those with a sexual orientation you do not share. If you design a character with any of these traits, be prepared to apologise.

Anyone who has read that list and wonders, 'Then what can I be funny about?' needs to rethink their alleged commitment to humour. If those are the only things that make you laugh, then I've got news for you. You don't have a sense of humour. There are other reasons for laughing – nervousness, for example, or the attempt to belong. A person who only laughs at someone else's expense has never experienced humour at all.

Now that I've made everybody in certain quarters of the world mad (you know who you are), I can raise the question:

How do I get people to laugh with the characters in my story, and not at them?

Here are a few suggestions from me.

1. Don't make up straw men, especially based on groups you don't like.

It was, therefore, an empty room into which Billy, a minute later, ushered Count Sylvius. The famous game-shot, sportsman, and man-about-town was a big, swarthy fellow, with a formidable dark moustache shading a cruel, thin-lipped mouth, and surmounted by a long, curved nose like the beak of an eagle. He was well dressed, but his brilliant necktie, shining pin, and glittering rings were flamboyant in their effect.   – Arthur Conan Doyle, 'The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone'

In this short story, we find out that Count Negretto Sylvius (what a name) is 'half-Italian'. Aha. Hence the emphasis on his swarthiness, and later, his hairiness. Of course, such people are not only criminals, but they dress in a vulgar fashion, unlike all us true-blue English types. This short story is so productive, I'm going to take all my 'what not to do' quotes from it today.

2. Don't make the villains stupid in a way that allows cheap shots by association.

The prize-fighter, a heavily built young man with a stupid, obstinate, slab-sided face, stood awkwardly at the door, looking about him with a puzzled expression. Holmes's debonair manner was a new experience, and though he vaguely felt that it was hostile, he did not know how to counter it. He turned to his more astute comrade for help.

Boxer=stupid. Oh, I get it. Don't we feel superior?

3. Don't expect the mere mention of another group to make categories in your readers' heads. It insults them, and makes you look prejudiced.

"I have Ikey Sanders, who refused to cut it up for you. Ikey has peached, and the game is up."

That may not be so obvious. Sherlock Holmes has just mentioned the name of the jeweller to whom Sylvius brought a stolen gemstone. Back then, 'everybody' knew that jewellers were Jewish ('Ikey'), and that they were not honest, like real folk.

4. Don't make your heroes look like idiots by allowing them to play cheap jokes on people.

"Show him up, Billy. This is the eminent peer who represents the very highest interests," said Holmes. "He is an excellent and loyal person, but rather of the old regime. Shall we make him unbend? Dare we venture upon a slight liberty? He knows, we may conjecture, nothing of what has occurred."
The door opened to admit a thin, austere figure with a hatchet face and
drooping mid-Victorian whiskers of a glossy blackness which hardly corresponded with the rounded shoulders and feeble gait. Holmes advanced affably, and shook an unresponsive hand.
"How do you do, Lord Cantlemere? It is chilly for the time of year, but rather warm indoors. May I take your overcoat?"

Holmes slips the stolen gem into the elderly gentleman's pocket, and annoys him no end by pretending to 'find' it there. This, of course, makes Holmes look really cool, don't you think? Personally, I agree with Lord Cantlemere:

"Your sense of humour may, as you admit, be somewhat perverted, and its exhibition remarkably untimely. . . "

So, you say, how can we be funny about people, if we aren't allowed to set 'em up and knock 'em down? How can we display our wit and erudition, if not at the expense of the feeble, the handicapped, the other? How about imitating a better writer?

The young lady had been Maxwell's stenographer for a year. She was beautiful in a way that was decidedly unstenographic. She forewent the pomp of the alluring pompadour. She wore no chains, bracelets or lockets. She had not the air of being about to accept an invitation to luncheon. Her dress was grey and plain, but it fitted her figure with fidelity and discretion. In her neat black turban hat was the gold-green wing of a macaw. On this morning she was softly and shyly radiant. Her eyes were dreamily bright, her cheeks genuine peachblow, her expression a happy one, tinged with reminiscence.   – O Henry, 'The Romance of a Busy Broker'

Most people would make fun of a simple secretary like this. Even more people would make fun of Maxwell the stockbroker. Now watch the master at work, children:

"Miss Leslie," he began hurriedly, "I have but a moment to spare. I want to say something in that moment. Will you be my wife? I haven't had time to make love to you in the ordinary way, but I really do love you. Talk quick, please – those fellows are clubbing the stuffing out of Union Pacific."

"Oh, what are you talking about?" exclaimed the young lady. She rose to her feet and gazed upon him, round-eyed.

"Don't you understand?" said Maxwell, restively. "I want you to marry me. I love you, Miss Leslie. I wanted to tell you, and I snatched a minute when things had slackened up a bit. They're calling me for the 'phone now. Tell 'em to wait a minute, Pitcher. Won't you, Miss Leslie?"

The stenographer acted very queerly. At first she seemed overcome with amazement; then tears flowed from her wondering eyes; and then she smiled sunnily through them, and one of her arms slid tenderly about the broker's neck.

"I know now," she said, softly. "It's this old business that has driven everything else out of your head for the time. I was frightened at first. Don't you remember, Harvey? We were married last evening at 8 o'clock in the Little Church Around the Corner."

See how much mileage you can get out of viewing the foibles of others with kindness and empathy?

Go thou and do likewise.

Writing Right with Dmitri Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

14.05.12 Front Page

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