Comedy and Character

Clowns are funny, right? Right?
Clowns are funny, right? Right?

As a writer, comedy is a genre worth understanding. Even if you don’t write comedies, their power is hard to deny. A fifth of the top-grossing films last year were comedies, and many of the others used humour to help tell their stories – Age of Ultron, Ant-Man and The Martian among them. Whatever you’re writing, it’s worth knowing a bit about humour.

All About Character

I recently read Steven Kaplan’s The Hidden Tools of Comedy. It provides some great insight into the fundamentals of being funny, focusing on structure rather than slapstick or smart lines. Intriguingly, Kaplan places character at the centre of creating comedy:

“Comedy is about an ordinary guy or gal struggling against insurmountable odds without many of the required skills and tools with which to win yet never giving up hope.”

To me, that isn’t just a useful tool in writing comedy – it defines the sort of characters I most like. People who, however skilled, are faced with a situation they aren’t equipped for but who keeping pushing on despite that.Their likeable persistence and their most obvious character flaw – the lack of relevant skills – are tied together. Following that thread can lead to tragedy as well as comedy, stirring all sorts of emotions.

Kaplan expands upon this in all sorts of interesting ways, and if you write then I recommend this book. But for me, reading it has been as much about understanding myself as understanding comedy – having something I like defined, and understanding its appeal.


You can read more on this in my latest article for Re:Fiction – Why Every Story Needs Some Humour.

The Pirates! In An Adventure With Communists by Gideon Defoe

I love Defoe’s Pirates books. I love the film based on the first one. I love their wacky antics. I love how little relation they bear to real pirates. I love the strange historical mishmash and the fantastical elements. I love the way my nieces have started playing at being the Pirate Captain, complete with luxuriant beard.

So when I found this book hidden like buried treasure in the children’s section of the St Ives Oxfam shop, I was pretty excited.

Top of the heap in my holiday reading pile
Top of the heap in my holiday reading pile


Kids books for adults

One of the central gags of the Pirates books is that they’re written much like children’s books. The prose is simple, the focus on dialogue and action rather than thought and emotion, and there’s a complete disregard for many expectations adults bring to a book.

But I’ve never thought that these were really children’s books. Sure, children can enjoy the wacky adventures, but how many of them will get jokes about Marxism and Moby Dick, or about the romantic feelings of the pirates?

These are stories that say ‘who cares if you’re an adult, don’t you want some silliness and child-like delight?’ To which I say heck yes. I love stories that progress from ham night through to 19th century philosophical giants wrestling on the rim of a volcano. I don’t always need things to make sense, but I often want them to be fun.

Defining delight

A brief aside here, much like the footnotes in Defoe’s book.

The delight I feel reading a book like this is very different from the delight I feel reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sailing to Sarantium. The latter is a deep, powerful emotion that puts me in touch with the wonder of the world around me and makes me see everything with fresh eyes. The delight of The Pirates is a light, frothy thing that puts a skip in my step and makes me laugh out loud. They share the same name, but they’re very different feelings, and both wonderful in their own way.

Take that genre!

One of my favourite things about children’s books is that they are less bound by genre expectations than adult ones. That feeling that anything goes is replicated here. It’s not that the book sets out to expand genre boundaries and conventions, it just ignores them. It’s OK for romanticised seventeenth century pirates to roam the streets of Victorian London, spend time in literary salons and attend an opera with a steampunk finale. Things aren’t explained, they don’t make sense, but they are always fun.

Yaarh me hearties

I’m sure you get the idea by now. This is a silly book, but one written in a smart way. It’s a lot of fun, and if you’re looking for a light, easy read it’s well worth it.

What have I learnt from it as a writer? Mostly that you can get away without much explanation if you’re funny enough. Which isn’t much help as I don’t write comedy, but it’s worth knowing.

Anyone else read it? What did you think?