Thursday, May 7, 2015

Send In The Clowns by Robert Lettrick

Question: What’s orange and sounds like a parrot? 
Answer: A carrot. 

I can’t argue with George and Fred, it was a pretty bad joke. Which is why I’ll never be the comic relief character in a middle grade novel. But who needs comic relief anyway? After all, the best heroes are the cool, brooding type and the best villains are so wicked they make our skin crawl, right? As a writer, as long as you've got those bases covered then you’re good. Comedy relief isn't important. 

Hagrid's right, as usual. But why is humor in MG important, even when the subject matter isn't meant to be funny?

After viewing Avengers: Age of Ultron the other day, I had a conversation with a friend of mine, a fellow comic book fan, about why Marvel's movies seem to do better at the box-office than DC's movies. We agreed that casting was a large part of it, but that’s not all. DC films, like the last Batman trilogy and Man of Steel, are dark in tone and utterly humorless while Marvel expertly peppers their films with well-timed jokes that land with the impact of Thor’s hammer. Marvel knows how to keep the tension high, but through the use of humor, they offer momentary relief while simultaneously disarming the audience. When I think about the first Avengers movie, the two scenes that jump immediately to mind are when the Hulk sucker-punched Thor and when he mopped the floor with Loki. In a movie loaded with high-stakes action, those brief bits of humor were arguably the most memorable. That's powerful stuff. But how does this translate to kid-lit?

My suggestion to aspiring writers? Don’t skimp on the comic relief. Some of the most successful middle grade books are popular because their authors have developed impeccable comedic timing and have imparted that timing to their characters. The Weasleys and Hagrid in Harry Potter, Grover in Percy Jackson, and Templeton the rat in Charlotte’s Web managed to steal the spotlight from their more serious counterparts every chance they got. But what about really dark books? The ones where humor might seem out of place? I say go for it! If your book’s palette is dark then humor can add a splash of much-needed color. Right, Effie?
Humor makes us care more for a character. It humanizes them (even when your characters aren’t human). Silliness in moderation is such an endearing quality that even a gruff character like Indiana Jones can be made more lovable via a well timed joke. 
But also keep in mind that humor can be tricky (as my opening attempt shows). Comic relief characters need to be more than one-dimensional, just like the rest of your book's cast. Don’t just shoehorn them into your story without thought, because kids, maybe even more than adults, know what’s genuinely funny versus pandering funny, and the latter can seriously backfire.

As a guy who’s gained a reputation for killing likable characters, what I’m going to suggest next may be a bit of a downer, but it needs to be said. Don’t be afraid to kill your comic relief characters if it adds depth to the story. If it creates growth for other characters or acts as a spur for action necessary to the plot. JK Rowling recently took to Twitter to apologize for killing Fred Weasley. That doesn't mean she wouldn't do it again, it just means she empathizes with her readers. Often times, the death of the lighthearted characters are the ones that hurt the most. 
It’s important to take humor seriously. I know that statement is contradictory, but humor is a writing tool that, when used with skill, can elevate your story dramatically. So when you're working on your manuscript, ask yourself if your book would benefit from some comic relief. The answer is probably yes. 


  1. Haha! I love humor in MG adventures, fantasies, historicals -- kids will always find something to laugh about if they can.

    I have a harder time reading straight (ha!) MG comedy -- all respect to those who write it, but often what 10yo kids love is not the same as me! It's an amazing ability to find their level of funny and write z compelling narrative too.

  2. Exactly, Kell. I think the best MG humor is sophisticated enough for adults but still appeal to kids, sometimes for different reasons. Pixar is another movie studio that gets it right consistently. I think it may be a little harder to do humor in kidlit because the visuals aren't available, but a good writer can paint pictures with words.

  3. From Galaxy Quest:

    Guy Fleegman: I'm just a glorified extra, Fred. I'm a dead man anyway. If I'm gonna die, I'd rather go out a hero than a coward.

    Fred Kwan: Guy, Guy... maybe you're the plucky comic relief. You ever think about that?

    Great post! Especially the part about making sure your comic relief moments hit the right note and feel genuine. The utter failure of Jar Jar is a classic example of how NOT to do it -- followed closely by Ewoks.

  4. Great post! YES, comedy is needed especially to lighten a dark moment. And I love how my fave comic quirks of characters really make them stand out to me (like Indy and his snakes). I also love laughing at character's embarrassing moments - like in Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The best is hearing my son laugh as he reads a book and has to share (who doesn't love Captain Underpants??)

  5. If middle grade authors could layer humor as much as they layer depressing topics, there would be a whole lot more books that my students (and I!) would like. Great post- with all of the depressing books out there, authors can certainly learn to lighten up a bit!

  6. I understood why Rowling killed off Fred, but I remember being absolutely furious at the time. Like, how COULD she? Not Fred!! Glad it wasn't Hagrid, though.

    Humor is hard for me to write. But it does manage to creep in to my manuscripts occasionally.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!