What Makes a Character Funny?

I'm still trying to figure out funny. It seems like just another kind of voice: once I get my head in it, everything kinda flows. When I put the right kinds of characters together, funny just sort of happens.

But not all my characters end up funny, and I can't always figure out why. This is my attempt to figure out certain types of characters that make humor easy to write.

"You know me. Just when I'm getting a grip on something Fate comes along and jumps on my fingers." -- Rincewind, Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett

This is my preferred form of funny (and the reason I'm writing this post, lest all my characters end up this way). This character probably has good points, but either they can't see them or they don't think they're useful. They're cynical about themselves, even as they step forward to achieve their goals.

Examples: Rincewind (Discworld novels), Hiccup (How to Train Your Dragon), Flint Lockwood (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs)

"You know what the chain of command is? It's the chain I go get and beat you with 'til ya understand who's in ruttin' command here." -- Jayne Cobb, Firefly

There are a lot of flavors of ignorant. The thug who doesn't understand the clever wit of those around him. The genius with zero social skills. The ultra-strong gentleman who can't believe someone would actually lie about being in trouble so they could steal his money. One important thing about all of them, though, is that while they're ignorant about one thing (to the point of hilarity), they are specialists in what they do best. 100% ignorant isn't as funny as you'd think.

Examples: Jayne Cobb (Firefly), Carrot (Discworld novels), Nobby (also Discworld), Joey Tribiani (Friends)

"The bright side of it is that if we break our necks getting down the cliff, then we’re safe from being drowned in the river." -- Puddleglum, Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis

If you're ever optimistic, the cynic will be sure to correct you. They'll point out that the plan will never work because nothing ever works (this is especially good if they're genre savvy). It's easy to go too far, but if you keep the character sympathetic, they can be one of your most lovable.

Examples: Puddleglum (Silver Chair), Sam Vimes (Discworld novels), Dolorous Edd (Song of Ice and Fire saga)

"Your work is unparalleled. And I'm a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster." -- Tony Stark, The Avengers

These are the characters that seem disconnected from reality in some way. You're never sure if they really know something you don't, or if they're just crazy. But they're willing to watch spoiled rich kids put themselves in danger, to commandeer large Navy vessels by themselves, and to poke green rage monsters with a needle. The weird thing is, most of the time it works.

Examples: Tony Stark (Ironman and The Avengers), Captain Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean), Willy Wonka (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory)

The beauty is you can combine these types (and others!) to create lots of unique characters. The trick with all of them, I think, is to keep them sympathetic so the humor doesn't go too far. Give them goals, real emotions, and moments of awesome, otherwise you'll end up with the opposite of funny.

There are lots of types of funny I haven't mentioned. What can you think of? Or how would you define characters like Wash and Chandler, or Sokka and Bolin?


Matthew MacNish said...

Sokka and Bolin are both kind of combinations of Ignorant and Cynical to me. And they're both hilarious. And Bolin has a touch of Self-deprecating too, to me.

Also, I think humor works best with a good foil. Sokka with Aang as a kind of foil (for his humor) was pretty good in season one, but nothing has ever been as funny (to me) as once Toph showed up, and her dry cynicism played so well against Sokka's ignorance, Aang's happy-go-lucky attitude, and Kitara's Extreme Optimism.

I think the key to truly funny storytelling is the space between two (or more) characters. How they relate to other, and how they don't.

Also, I wanted to say something about self-deprecation in general. I use a lot of self-deprecating humor IRL, because I think it makes for good laughs, and I pride myself on being humble. I don't think a person has to be full of self-doubt or to be cynical about their flaws to use self-deprecating humor. I think people can be perfectly confident in their abilities, and still make fun of themselves, simply because it's funny.

I think this can be applied to characters too (and I'm not saying you disagreed with my point in this post, because you didn't say that they can't or anything).

BTW - the term "the space between two characters," is something I've borrowed from Sarah Fine. I use it, because it's brilliant, but I have to give credit where it is due.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

What does it say about me that I like "Eccentric" best?


Love this post! I would have struggled to define these at all, much less as well as you have. I read somewhere that all humorous characters have an obsession that they can't see. That's what makes them funny, and I can kind of see that thread through the examples you have here.

McKee in Story also said, "Comedy points out that in the best of circumstances human beings find some way to screw up."

Which is funny right there. :)

Steve MC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve MC said...

Never thought of different types of humor, so this got me thinking.

Another type of humor might simply be funny phrases, like when Hiccup calls his dragon a useless reptile.

And then there's the way he says it, too. So many levels to humor.

P.S. What Susan said of obsessions reminded me of something Jim Henson said, which is that with the Muppets he took one quality of each of them and made it stand out in the extreme, so it became humorous.

Myrna Foster said...

You do all right with the funny. I remember enjoying that aspect of AZRAEL'S CURSE.

But here are my random thoughts:

I don't think you should try to make ALL of your characters funny. I mean, they can all have funny moments, but like Matt said, humor is about interaction. It's also about the unexpected.

Arrogance can be funny, too, especially when it gets smacked down (Loki, Avengers). Bwahahahaha!

Terry Pratchett for the win! :D

Victoria Dixon said...

Ooh, I'm someone who has a hard time writing funny characters, so this is so helpful! Especially since you used characters I know and love. LOL Thanks again!

linda said...

Oh, interesting! I think I tend to be more fond of cynical and eccentric types of humor myself. Not sure if this counts as a category, but I also appreciate reactionary humor -- where someone works off something another person says and changes the meaning or context, rather than offering one liners. But your categories seem to be based more on tone/attitude than the mechanics. So maybe I'd add innuendo as a type of humor -- where innocent situations or words are made to sound more suggestive than they actually are.

Jack said...

I like funny characters, but I'm often worried I make them too funny and then annoying. I like the examples you gave. One of my favourites is Sokka. He is funny, but not too annoying, he is still a great friend and brother and a war leader, so he is still likable. He was a very well done character I think.

VikLit said...

Really great interesting post. Full of great examples. Bookmarking!

Daniel Smith said...

You've done a good job with Looney Tunes humor i.e. humor from character interactions. But what about Classic Disney Cartoon humor i.e. situational comedy? Repetition of phrase or circumstance, physical comedy (e.g. Dick van Dyke), reversals, twists, etc.

And you missed Butt-Monkey.

Love these posts.