Mysteries, thrillers and horror fiction can be very grim. Some authors (including me) add a little humour to lighten the load a little. But there are a few things to consider if you want to use humour in your fiction. (Note: I’m using the Canadian spelling of “humour” because I am Canadian).
First, a big no-no:
Don’t have your character or characters crack a lot of jokes. This isn’t stand-up comedy or a comedy TV series. There could be one exception to this – if a trait of one of your characters is to tell jokes – bad or otherwise and it fits in with the plot and this character’s interaction with other characters. But use it sparingly or not at all. It is not the best technique.
Some techniques that can work:
Your main character is a klutz. Picture a klutzy private investigator or cop or? This can bring up several scenarios that can lighten your story. It can also provide some problems for your character in their investigation. For example, your PI is snooping outside a house where nobody is home at the moment. Or maybe he or she gets into the house to look around. Instead of the family dog barking at them or charging at them, why not have the kluzy PI trip over a sleeping cat and fall down a few stairs – or how about a whole menagerie of animals – maybe he or she collides with a snake that has gotten loose from its cage? And the PI is terrified of snakes.
Or give your PI or cop, what we call a character tag and use that to create some humour as the character does what he or shee normally do. In my Beyond books, Detective Sergeant Donald Fielding stutters – not with work-related things, but with personal things that make him nervous – such as his attraction to PI Dana Bowman. He also suffers from migraines. In one scene in Beyond Blood, Fielding knocks on the door of the bedroom Dana had to sleep in overnight – not at her place as a murder and kidnapping took place there and her home is a crime scene,so Dana and her fraternal twin PI Bast Overture are staying at a neighbour’s next door. Here’s a short excerpt from Beyond Blood with the encounter the next morning between Dana and Fielding.
The pounding came from the bedroom door.
“M … M … Ms. Bowman,” Fielding said from outside the door.
Couldn’t the man give me a little privacy? I pushed the covers off and realized I was in a strange bed and still wore my party dress. Red for blood. Red. Cut it out, Dana.
“What the hell do you want, Fielding?”
“Are you d … d … decent?”
“What?” I scratched my head and yawned.
“Ms. Bowman. I need to talk to you.”
“I h … h … have a ch … ch … change of clothes for you.”
“What?” I leaped out of bed, ran to the door and pulled it open.
Fielding leaned against the wall. His face resembled whitewash and red rivers flowed through his eyes. He held a plastic bag, which he slid over my way.
“Your ch … ch … change of clothes. C … Constable Nivens collected them.”
“Thanks.” I grabbed the bag. “You look like hell. No sleep?”
“Just a migraine. I get them all the time. It’ll pass.”
“Migraine. Here, come in and sit down on …” A quick glanced around the room showed an ironing board piled high with clothes standing beside a chest of drawers. A basket of clothing sat in the room’s only chair. “… on the bed.”
“No, it’s okay.”
“No, it isn’t. Migraines are awful. My mother used to get them, but thankfully I don’t. She used to blow in a paper bag, to get rid of the pain, I mean. Maybe there’s one here.” I started rummaging in the dresser drawers.
“Ms. B … B … Bowman. It’s all right.”
“Here we are.” I shook a scarf from a Fashion Shoppe bag and shoved the bag at Fielding. He ignored it. “Put it over your face and blow.”
He stared at me, for once speechless, took a deep breath and sputtered.
“Take the damn bag and blow. And go and sit down. I don’t want to have to deal with a cop passing out in a bedroom.”
A little colour hit his face for a second. He staggered over to the bed, plunked down on the edge, leaned over and blew. I moved towards the doorway, stopped and swung around.
“Look, Fielding, I’m sorry. Guess we’re all a little edgy.” I sat on the bed beside him and touched his forehead. He flinched and pulled away. “Sorry. Do you want a glass of water?”
“W … w … wait. It’s the kid. I m … m … mean your son. I have a daughter.”
“I know. You told me earlier.”
“Well, I want you to know, Ms. Bowman.”
“D … Dana, that I’ll do my best to get your son back safe and sound.”
“I know that, Fielding.”
“M … my name is Don.”
“Okay, Don. Anyway, you have two private detectives in the house to help you out.”
“Now, listen here, Ms. Bowman. You let the police handle this. Your job is to answer your cell phone if it rings, so we know what the kidnappers want. Nothing else.” He pointed his forefinger under my nose. (Copyright Sharon A. Crawford, From Beyond Blood, Blue Denim Press, 2014).
As you can see, there is enough for the reader to visualize – especially a burly cop blowing into a brown bag. hey are in close quarters and both characters are uncomfortable. But it is only a moment before the two characters return to “business”. But what else does the encounter tell you about the characters and the story?
In my short story collection Beyond the Tripping Point, some of my stories are noir and satire, one in particular – The Body in the Trunk, which has an unusual take on two friends trying to move a body to… well, that would be giving it away. You have to read it to get it.
And that’s my last suggestion. Read published novels containing humour in the genre you are writing in. Three authors who do it so well are:
Melodie Campbell with her Goddaughter series. The Toronto Sun calls her “Canada’s Queen of Comedy”.
Steve Shrott (who also teaches humour writing) with his stand-alone mysteries. One features a dentist who is a part-time PI and another features an actor whose main roles have been dead bodies.
Janet Evanovitch and her mysteries. Her bail bonds character, Stephanie Plum, is forever getting into scrapes, especially with the two fellows who like her.
See how these authors work their humour to fit their characters and their plots.
Happy reading, especially over the Christmas season.
Have a good holiday.
Sharon A. Crawford