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?

First Impact: Mourn Their Courage by Victoria Dixon

Time for another First Impact critique. Remember you are eligible to win $10 for Amazon/B&N OR a 20-page critique from me if you share your thoughts in the comments. Your critique doesn't have to be long, just useful!

If you want your material critiqued, send it to firstimpactAE@gmail.com. Details here.

Big thanks to long-time reader Victoria Dixon for submitting the first page of her Chinese historical fantasy. Keep in mind all this is just my opinion. If it doesn't feel right to you, ignore it.

My in-line comments are to the right, overall thoughts at the end.

Opening Page
I like the gestures here, but I'm not
sure whose POV this is. Also, as an
opening, I'm hoping for some small
hint of conflict or mystery to make
it more compelling.
Once Liu Jie joined his general on the staircase, General Tong Zhang drained his tankard in a gulp and slammed the metal cup against the stair's supporting pillar. Both men stood in their heavy double-framed cuirasses, framed by the stair's red pillars. If the inn were not so crowded already, Zhang would not have needed to draw the men's attention.

Every eye? Really ;-)
Jie waited until he'd met every eye and while the room quieted in anticipation.

I'm not sure we need their full names
both here AND at the start.

I think this would be clearer if Jie
were more direct, like "Emperor
Xien has charged us to protect the
capital from rebels [etc]."
"My name is Lord Liu Jie. This is my partner, Tong Zhang.” Jie gestured to the Imperial notice by the inn's door. “For the safety of his people, Emperor Xien has warned us about rebels who have robbed from Imperial warehouses — stealing from all of us and threatening the capital. We must do more than be wary. Our Imperial Father is in danger and we must protect him." Jie paused. "My partner will see we're you are fed and I will pay those who will serve."

A murmur rose in seconds. Most men joined militias and were paid with for consistent meals they didn't receive elsewhere.

Jie raised his hand for silence and the room quieted in an instant. "Make your mark on the sign up sheet. We'll take recruits for the next three days." Jie nodded to the crowd and stepped off the landing as men rushed forward to give their names to Zhang.

I'm not sure who is marveling here.
Servants lit the paper lanterns whose construction he and his family had marveled at days before when they arrived. The fragile lights swayed as he passed.

At first, I confused the "starving
farmers" here with the men he was
enlisting. Could that be clarified?

I love this last line. It implies the
sadistic choice I'm always talking
Jie still struggled, sickened by his decision to go to war. The rebels were probably starving farmers in need of pity, not punishment, but their actions required the latter. All Jie wanted was to reach his nephew the Emperor and stop the mounting civil unrest. It was why he and his family had journeyed all the way across the country, but now he couldn't reach the Emperor without sounding the battle drums he'd fought to keep silent. To bring peace, I must attack my brothers.

Adam's Thoughts
I love Asian history and historical fantasy. I, personally, would keep reading based on genre alone. I also like the gestures and the descriptions here. I feel drawn into the scene.

One problem I had was figuring out whose point of view we're in. The opening image of them standing, framed by pillars, implies omniscient or a third character. The last sentence of the first paragraph implies Zhang's POV, but later we get deeply into Jie's thoughts.

Another way I think you can improve this is to bring up Jie's internal conflict about the civil war sooner, even in the first paragraph. I don't mean mean move the whole last paragraph to the front, but just provide some kind of hint in the first paragraph that Jie is conflicted about what he has to do (maybe something about enlisting poor farmers to fight poor farmers, for example). I think that might help engage the reader from the very start.

But that's just my opinion. What do the rest of you guys think?

Spec Fic, Sci-Fi, and Other Ambiguous Terms

"Speculative fiction" is hard to define, mostly because nobody agrees on the meaning. Broadly, there are two useful definitions, but to understand them, we have to take a brief (BRIEF!) look at the history of science fiction.

1. About 100 years ago, people called science fiction a thing.
2. About 80 years ago, sci-fi hit what's considered it's "Golden Age."
3. About 60 years ago, a LOT of people were writing sci-fi. Not all of it was good.

(Told you it was brief.)

It was around this time that Robert Heinlein coined the term speculative fiction, and gave it its first definition:

speculative fiction: (n) 1. Fiction that has science-fictional elements, but is not science fiction.

Here's what happened. When sci-fi got big, it also got stereotyped. It became seen as cheap entertainment for the masses. "Genre" fiction as opposed to "real" fiction. Critics treated it as subpar literature, even though (and I love this quote from Peter Watts) "The same critics who roll their eyes at aliens and warp drive don't seem to have any problems with a woman ascending into heaven while hanging laundry in One Hundred Years of Solitude, just so long as Gabriel Garcia Marquez doesn't get published by Tor or Del Ray."

Ever since then, a lot of sci-fi authors -- like Robert Heinlein, Kurt Vonnegut, and Margaret Atwood -- have tried to distance themselves from the sci-fi label. They often use the term speculative fiction to do this.

But it's not a very useful definition. For one thing, it defines itself by what it is NOT, which is silly.

But also, it's arrogant. It tries to define speculative fiction as "science fiction, but good." It's an offense to Herbert, LeGuin, Asimov, Card, and thousands of other genuinely good sci-fi authors who weren't afraid of the term.

I think people realized this, but the term has stayed in use. But to most people, it now mostly means this:

speculative fiction: (n) 2. An umbrella term covering everything from science fiction to fantasy to magical realism.

At first glance, it appears too broad to be useful. Almost like saying spec-fic is any fiction that could not have occurred in the world as we know it.

Two things make this definition useful: (1) fans of sci-fi and fantasy* have a large amount of overlap. (2) A lot of speculative fiction does not fall easily into one of these subcategories.

Speculative fiction gives us a way to talk about works like Miéville's Perdido Street Station without having to decide whether the fantastical races make it fantasy or the high-tech, steampunk elements make it sci-fi. Or whether Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun is fantasy because it feels medieval or sci-fi because it's dystopian and post-apocalyptic.

It is almost too broad a term (which is why I didn't use it in my query), but it's inclusive rather than snobbish, which I much prefer. Instead of saying, "That can't be genre fiction because it's not garbage!" I'd rather say, "Yes, this is genre. Some it is actually GOOD."

* And magical realism and horror, paranormal, dystopian, post-apocalyptic fiction, superheros, alternate history, and everything else spec-fic usually covers.

Embarrassed AT-AT

Oops...hope nobody got hurt.

Cross-posted from Anthdrawlogy's Hoth week (part of a whole Star Wars month). If you want to see a much cooler AT-AT, check out fellow Anthdrawlogian Charles Eubanks' take on Eadward Muybridge.

So what's your favorite Star Wars quote? Mine is when Han Solo calls Leia, "Your highness-ness."

Okay, go.

First Impact: Through the Wormhole by Mairead Ahmad and Jennifer Van Haaften

Time for another First Impact critique. Remember you are eligible to win $10 for Amazon/B&N OR a 20-page critique from me if you share your thoughts in the comments. Your critique doesn't have to be long, just useful!

If you would like your material critiqued, send it to firstimpactAE@gmail.com. Details here.

A huge thanks to Mairead and Jennifer for submitting the first page* of their MG sci-fi. Keep in mind this is just my opinion. If it doesn't feel right to you, ignore it.

My in-line comments are to the right, overall thoughts at the end. Line edits are in red, and highlighted text is usually something I referred to in the in-line comments.

Opening Page

Loving the chapter title.

“Flute!” The word echoed down the bright blue hallway, followed by a resounding thud.

I feel like there's a lot to keep track
of. Are they in a school? Hospital?
Skidding to a halt several feet ahead, Zak turned, his suit sparkling in the light. His uncle Aztar lay sprawled face down on the copper tiled floor. A clipboard hovered above his head, slowly spinning.

The two untagged dialogs in a row
are making me wonder who's talking.

I do love this world bit though.
“Uncle A!” A dull groan was the only answer. Zak’s day was not going according to plan, not that they ever did. Although, when he thought about it, his days never went according to any plan of his making. He sprinted back to Aztar’s side. Medic-bots had already been activated and were rushing toward them on spidery legs.

It's not immediately clear to me
these refer to the nanocomputers.
That made this whole paragraph a
lot to take in.

“The nanocomputers?” Aztar asked, scrambling to a kneeling position, knocking the clipboard with his head. Zak grabbed the clipboard, the devices were still attached. He checked both two-inch square computers with the name Herman imprinted on each wristband.

“They’re fine!” Zak’s voice cracked. “Come on! Anyana is flipping her lid.” But even as the words left his mouth the medic-bots were swarming over Aztar, scanning him, and looking for injuries.

I love this.

"Aztar grumbled" feels like dialog
tag overkill to me.

I feel like this paragraph should be
broken in two after Aztar's last
“I’m not hurt!” Aztar said as loudly and clearly as he could, swiping at the bots as more jumped up to poke and prod him. “I hate this new medical experiment,” Aztar grumbled. “Six more months of these….medic-bots running around the Singh Complex and I’ll be ready to explode.” One of the bots jumped onto Aztar’s shoulder, making him leap up. It started scanning his face, repeating the phrase, “Nasal contusion, possible concussion…..scanning, scanning.” Aztar shoved it off his shoulder, it landed easily on its six legs. Aztar shook his pants to keep more from climbing on him.

“He’s not hurt!” Zac yelled,. “Go dormant!” He watched them slink away looking rather crest-fallen, if that was possible for a machine. He wondered if it was even possible for a computer-operated machine to care about its job.

Adam's Thoughts
I'm really enjoying the voice and snatches of world-building so far. I would keep reading, but I'd be concerned about a couple of things:
  1. Wordy jokes lost in wordiness. I notice a general tendency here to use 2-3 sentences where one will do, especially around the jokes (like the two I red-lined here). I think the whole thing would benefit from some ruthless trimming, but the jokes most of all. Brevity is the soul of wit, right?
  2. Grounding the reader in the world. I really do love the world-building bits here, but be careful you don't pound the reader with too much too soon. Guide them into the strangeness gently.
  3. Exclamation marks. I count 7 in just 300 words. I think only the first two do any work, especially with dialog tags like "Aztar said...loudly" and "Zac yelled" (and actually, even those dialog tags are probably unnecessary...).
But that's just my opinion. What do the rest of you guys think?

* On a random note, I love how the first three First Impact entries have covered the three main types I asked for: queries, back-cover copy, and first page (in that order, no less). Well done, guys! Now I don't suppose anyone has a 1-page synopsis for me to look at?

What I Learned From 52 Rejections

A couple weeks ago, I suggested people query their first novel, even though it would probably get rejected. I said this because I think you can learn a lot from querying even a bad novel, and your reputation as an author will be none the worse for it.

Can I put my money where my blog is? Well, yes. Some of you may recall that I queried my first novel and that query got 52 out of 52 rejections.

So what did I learn?

1) I learned how to write a query letter. My first query really, really sucked. But by the end of that query round, I'd done a ridiculous amount of research and revision and actually got professional feedback that my final query did not suck (though the opening pages did).

And if you're thinking you don't have to write a query because you're self-publishing, think again. The back-cover copy you have to write for every book-selling site is essentially the same thing.

2) I can do this. The feedback I got -- a little from professionals but mostly from other aspiring authors -- was encouraging. It told me that, even though I wasn't there yet, I could be.

3) I WANT this. While my query was out, I spent a lot of time online trying to figure out what I was doing wrong, how to make it better, how to write, what my publishing options were. And at some point during all of that, I realized I really, REALLY wanted to be a part of this world.

4) If I want it, I have to keep writing. I can't learn by waiting for 52 rejections or for the responses of beta readers who might never get back to me. I can't learn if I'm spending all my time on promotion. The only sure way for me to learn is to write (and revise) something new.

Could I have learned these same things by self-publishing that monstrosity first novel? Probably. I have no doubt that's the path others have taken. Maybe those first novels with 200 sales are a badge of pride for some people, like my 200 rejections are for me. Maybe that's the motivation they need. But for me, it would've felt like quitting.

Have you written more than one novel? What did you do with your first one? What did you learn?

Writing Excerpts

You've heard of this Lucky 7 Meme? I've been tagged for this thing so many times, I actually got tired of not posting it. So lucky you, you get a tiny bit of Air Pirates flavor this morning.

The idea is you go to page 77 of your MS, 7 lines down, then copy/paste the next 7 lines as they appear. Here they are for Air Pirates:

      "You have my stone."
      Sam knelt beside him, picking at the cobblestones with a knife that seemed to come from nowhere. "I do have the stone, aye."
      "I . . ." Hagai sat up straight. "I want it back."
      "Nay." Sam looked at him with those piercing blue eyes. He would see right through Tobin's charade, Hagai was sure. Suddenly he was afraid he wouldn't be able to play it through.
      Well, not suddenly. He thought it was a bad idea from the start.

I'm not going to tag anybody else except for all of you who are reading this. So, you know, if you want to play, go ahead and play.

And here's a bonus excerpt, because Air Pirates is kinda sorta really polished, and the meme is more about drafts, I think. So from my mid-revision WIP, currently titled Post-Apocalyptic Dragon-Riding Ninjas (with Mechs!):
On either side of the iron doors towered two giant mekas—stone replicas of the metal monsters that helped destroy the Old World.
      They had a long ride ahead of them yet. The wall enclosed an entire town over two square kilometers in area, and the road to the central keep was a winding maze to hinder invaders. Domino had plenty of time to figure out what he would say.
      "What does the baron have against you?" Ko asked.
      "I guess we'll find out."

So yeah, you got dropped into the middle of my world-famous weak description. That's what happens with these memes, I guess.

If you play on your own blog, drop a link in the comments so I can read it too.