Skip Navigation

Top Menu

Home Archives About

Blog Post

Balancing Humor and Pathos

One of the reasons comedy is so difficult to write and sell is that most modern readers want to identify with the characters of novels. They don't like to watch and judge from the outside; they like to be in the protagonists' skin. They like heroes and heroines to feel the way they feel and think the way they think.

But humor, by its very nature, prevents and destroys that connection.

Humor requires distance.

I've written before that unexpected truth is the essence of humor. The problem is, telling the unvarnished truth establishes a distance between the characters and readers.

It's hard to illustrate this point through a blog post, so I'll leave it up to the experts. Leaf through a book by P. G. Wodehouse, Georgette Heyer, or anyone else famed for light, witty writing. Or watch a movie by the Marx Brothers, Leslie Nielsen, Woody Allen, etc.

What will the characters in these stories all have in common? They'll be very flawed. You'll see them from a distance, as they really are: irrational, cowardly, vain, and foolish. You might feel sorry for them, but you won't fully identify with them because, naturally, you don't see yourself as someone foolish and pathetic.

This distance and objectivity is necessary to make a story funny. You can laugh at a hero's foolishness, his panic, and even his pain only because he's someone different, someone other than you. If you identify with the character too acutely—if you feel pain and anger along with him—you can't laugh when he suffers. And, of course, the number two ingredient for comedy, after truth, is suffering.

Humor creates distance.

The purpose of humor is to destroy darkness and seriousness. Humor releases an audience from fear, sorrow, and other distressing emotions. You can't be on the edge of your seat, worrying about the main character, if you're laughing at him at the same time.

Take two films that parody horror movies: Shaun of the Dead and The Cabin in the Woods. I was wary of seeing both of these because I dislike horror movies. I hate blood, I hate grotesque monsters, and I hate being scared. But while these movies are full of blood and monsters, neither of them are scary at all.

In The Cabin in the Woods, the world will end unless a shadowy organization sacrifices people to ancient gods in terrifying, gory ways. But the dialogue is so cheeky and self-aware that you can't suspend disbelief and fully invest yourself in the characters' fates. You're always conscious that these people are caricatures played by actors, and that the movie makers are poking fun at genre tropes, torture-loving audiences, and our casual acceptance of excessive violence as entertainment.

The result: you don't care much when someone gets beheaded by a zombie, impaled by a unicorn, or eaten by a merman. You see tidal waves of blood and piles of mutilated corpses and you giggle, because it's so deliberately over-the-top. Humor creates a safe buffer zone that lets you detach from any unpleasant emotion and laugh at it.

That's the point, and it's what people enjoy, but it means that the tug of war between pathos and humor is a zero sum game. Jokes don't work if people care too much, and the very act of telling one destroys any care they might have built up. A joke tells the audience, "Stop taking this so seriously! Bad stuff is going to happen in this story. Don't worry about it. Enjoy it. It's all make believe."


So what do you do if you want to write a story that has both humor and pathos?

Create a heroic main character and leave the comedy to the rest.

In Kagemusha I make fun of everybody, including the heroine. I tell it in the third person so readers will see her somewhat objectively. She's impulsive and a wee bit cracked. She does stupid things. Hopefully, readers will laugh because she's a clown; they won't get frustrated because they expect her to act like a Reasonable Person.

But if you want to put a nugget of earnestness at the heart of your story, it's dangerous to alienate readers from the protagonist (especially if you're telling it in the first person). You'll do better to make the main character heroic, with noble intentions and feelings and whatnot. Then you can add in the "funny" through secondary characters, who can be as crazy as you'd like.

The most popular of Jane Austen's books, judging by the frequency with which the stories are adapted for film, are Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion. These books have relateable heroines. Readers admire Elizabeth Bennet and aspire to be like her. They don't laugh at her, even though she's obviously flawed. You can't laugh at Eleanor Dashwood, Fanny Price, or Anne Elliot, either. They're too good and pitiful.

The least popular of Jane Austen's novels, in my experience, are Emma and Northanger Abbey. Critics love them best, but readers generally dislike them. Why? Because you can't identify with the main character. Emma's an arrogant fool and Catherine Morland is a silly airhead who's read too many Gothic romances. They're not meant to be loved; they're meant to be laughed at.

Before you write your story, you have to make a decision: do you want to write an Emma or a Pride and Prejudice? Do you want to maximize laughs by making your protagonist comic, or do you want to pull readers in by making your protagonist heroic? It's very difficult to do both.

For each scene, choose one or the other.

Humor and pathos are opposing forces. If you apply one, you weaken the other. So when you plan a comedic book, you need to strategize: when can you afford to be humorous, and when do you need to buckle down and be serious?

My natural impulse is to make fun of everything all the time. I like to inject levity into every sentence and put laughs on every page. So if I want to write a scene that's thrilling, touching, or otherwise serious in tone, I have to resist the urge to crack wise.

Imagine your intrepid heroine has discovered that the mayor has dealings with the mafia. As she's rushing to the police station to give her detective boyfriend some critical evidence, a van pulls up beside her. Muscular men in black suits jump out. She runs. They run faster. She screams and fights, but they grab her and toss her into the van.

While the kidnappers are distracted, the heroine manages to pull out her cell phone and call her detective boyfriend. The menacing man beside her turns his head, and she quickly hides the phone behind her back.

"Who are you guys?" she asks loudly. "You work for the mayor, don't you! Where are you taking me?"

"Shut up!" the man sneers.

The heroine hopes her boyfriend understood the call for help, and that he can track her by the GPS in her phone. Nothing she can do now but wait.

So she settles back, looks at the man beside her, and says, " 'bout those Mets?"

NO NO NO NO NO! You have just taken a nail-biter of a scene and turned it into a farce.

Telling a joke is like pressing a reset button. Any tension you've slowly built up, any emotional investment you've gently coaxed out of readers, is now gone. If you want readers to care about what happens next, you have to start all over.

If you're writing a comedic scene, I say go all in and make it hilarious—don't drag it down by turning it serious. But if you intend to write a serious scene, be careful not to destroy it with comedy. You can leave the jokes for later, after the climax of the action.


No comments

(Will not be shown)

What is the first letter of "Indiana"?