Mark Twain wrote in his biography that “Humor is mankind’s greatest blessing.” But writing funny can be a challenge as today’s Friday friend, Lisa Papademetriou, shares in her essay below. It’s an honor to host Lisa today in celebration of her new book, Apartment 1986, HarperCollins, just out on Tuesday!
The first time I handed in a humorous manuscript, it came back with some pretty interesting critiques by my editor. Beside almost every single one of my jokes, she had placed a bracket and written, “Make funny.”
That was pretty dispiriting because I really thought I had. Honestly, I thought I was hilarious. But when I looked back at the jokes, I realized that many were almost funny, but not quite. The humor had to be pushed. But how do you teach someone how to make something funny? What was I supposed to do?
Writing funny, it turns out, often has a lot to do creating funny characters. And one way to craft funny characters is to give them a desire or personal project that is unique to them—one that offers room for funny moments and/ or shenanigans. When I started my latest book, I didn’t know much about my about my main character, but I knew one thing: Callie wants to be a deep thinker. She talks about a mile a minute and often (mis)uses words that are out of her vocabulary comfort zone (“I am telepathological!”). Callie really believes she’s a philosopher, and she wants to be the kind of spiritual guru that makes serious money, like Oprah or Deepak Chopra. So she spends a significant portion of her time trying to think up “deep” slogans that might look good on a mug or a T-shirt. Unfortunately for her, many of her thoughts are so deep that they don’t really make too much sense. Like this one: “Whenever God closes a door, he opens a window, so you can totally still climb out as long as you are on the first floor.” When Callie goes deep, she digs past hmmm and goes straight to hunh?
Once your character has a unique interest, you—the writer—have something to work with. When I was trying to figure out what Callie’s conflict might be, I realized fairly quickly that a girl who was interested in being a guru-for-profit would probably be a girl with money problems. Et voila—I realized that Callie owed her good friend money for a concert ticket. And, as a result, she doesn’t want to go to school until she has the funds…so ends up skippng class and is constantly looking for money on the street and hoping she can make it appear through the power of positive thinking. At that point, more humorous situations and misunderstandings were sure to follow.
Fundamentally, a funny novel relies on humorous situations, which rely on humorous characters. If you can manage to craft someone unique, you’ll find a way to grab a giggle.
Lisa Papademetriou is the author of A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic (A South Asia Book Award Highly Commended Title), Apartment 1986, the Confectionately Yours series, and many other novels for middle grade and young adult readers. She serves on the faculty of the MFA program (Writing for Children and Young Adults Track) at Sierra Nevada College.