May 23, 2023
By Maggie Smith
Writing a novel is no laughing matter. Or is it? Incorporating humor into your writing can add depth, lighten the mood, and make your characters more relatable. But how do you add humor without turning your novel into a comedy? Here are six things to keep in mind so you can strike the right balance.
Know your audience
Understanding what makes your readers tick will help you write humor that resonates with them. For example, if your target audience is middle-aged women, you may want to include humor about family and relationships, while a younger audience might respond better to humor about current events and pop culture. Certain genres, like rom-coms and cozy mysteries are cherished as much for their whimsical tone and their quirky characters as for their plots.
Write what you know
Personal experiences and observations can provide great material for humor. For example, if you have a funny story about a disastrous date, consider using it as a basis for a scene in your novel. Likewise, your quirky memory about a childhood pet can be incorporated into the backstory of an otherwise serious character, making them seem more well-rounded and authentic.
Use irony and satire
Irony and satire, when used sparingly, can add a sharp, witty edge to your writing. Romantic comedies often use banter and witty repartee to signal a growing attraction between opposites. In a more literary novel, you could create a character who acts against society’s rules and ironically comes out on top because of their willingness to view things in a slightly off-kilter way.
Develop relatable characters
Strive to think up characters with fresh and unique quirks and flaws so that readers can more easily relate to them. For example, you might have a college student who keeps a snake as a pet or a mother who forgets what day it is. The people around them may tolerate this, may poke fun at them in a good-natured way, or may even find the trait endearing.
Play with language
Wordplay, puns, and clever turns of phrase can bring a smile to the reader’s face, even in the middle of an otherwise serious novel. For example, using puns in dialogue between characters can add a lighthearted touch to the scene and make it more memorable. So too the use of unusual nicknames can show the closeness, even intimacy, that exists between family members or best friends.
Lighten the mood
Use humor to diffuse tension and provide a break from heavier themes. For example, you may want to add a comic relief character who steps in and offers humorous commentary in certain situations or an off-beat event like a balloon ride that lets the reader take a breath between otherwise non-stop action.
While humor is a powerful tool, it’s important to use it with caution and sensitivity. Be sure to avoid making jokes at the expense of marginalized groups or using humor to trivialize serious issues, like abuse or addiction.
While incorporating humor into your novel can be a challenge, it’s also a lot of fun! Remember to be authentic, write what you know, and let your own unique sense of humor shine through. Sometimes the world can look pretty bleak so try giving your readers a good chuckle.
Maggie Smith’s debut novel, Truth and Other Lies, was published by Ten16Press in March 2022. She’s the host of the weekly podcast Hear Us Roar (available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google) where she interviews debut women’s fiction authors about their novel and their path to publication. Her first-ever short story, The Devil You Know, appeared in the 2018 anthology False Faces and she’s also a regular monthly blogger for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. A board member of the Chicago Writers Association, she serves as managing editor of the literary publication Write City Magazine. She makes her home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Agents and Publishers
Book of the Year
First Chapter Contest
Chicago Writers Association
Make a Difference!