Adding Levity Versus Writing Comedy

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I had a wonderful conversation today with one of my very good writer friends, who just so happens to also write dark fiction. Coincidentally, both of our works in progress are Dystopian Sci-Fi, although his runs in more of the YA vein.

One of the highlights of this conversation was talking about how to incorporate levity (definition: humor or frivolity, especially the treatment of a serious matter with humor) in a piece that is filled with dark emotions, heavy tension, and even a bit of violence. This is important to have in small doses when writing such a high-tension novel. It works as a sort of catharsis for the reader, a reminder that even though the characters face incredible odds or have been seemingly crushed by the weight of life’s injustices, they’re still essentially okay. Just like laughter is a good remedy for any bad mood in our daily lives, bringing levity into a tense story both instills a sense of hope and gives the reader a little break from all the darkness.

The largest obstacle, in my opinion (and one thing writers are terrified of not doing effectively when looking at their own work, myself included), is how to tread that fine line between breaking up the tension and introducing a humorous element that feels unbelievable, inappropriately placed, and turns the work into a comedy – the proverbial sweet spot. I’m going to go over two main ways of doing this (though I know there are far more than only two), and will tell you why I prefer to use one more frequently than the other.

Adding a Comedic Supporting Character

I see this used most often across the board, in both film and literature. I actually took a class on this years ago (amazing that I remember it) which dealt with this in plays. A lot of the class covered Greek Tragedies and Shakespeare, and pointed out that a good deal of these plays with dark themes and high-tension scenes also wrote in comedic characters, known as the ‘Fool’ or the ‘Jester’. As memory serves, the Shakespearean Fools can be found in The Gravediggers in Hamlet, the Porter in MacBeth, and The Fool in King Lear. Of course, these are just a few of many, and there has been a lot of discussion around Shakespearean literature that marks the ‘Fool’ characters as serving both for comic relief (usually appearing directly after particularly horrendous scenes) and as a tool used to transform a scene’s complex nature into something universally understandable – i.e. viewing the world one more time through the eyes of a “less intelligent person”.

Another example of this, though superficial, can be found in a lot of modern horror movies. Not all do this (because I’m not making generalizations), but I’ve seen so many horror movies with one character who is particularly goofy, or makes snide, sarcastic comments in reaction to the scary elements, which usually elicits a humorous response. Of course, a lot of them end up dying first because they were also too skeptical to believe what was happening, but that’s beside the point.

These characters can do wonders for that element of comedic relief inside a dark story or work of fiction, which is important because we never want to completely overwhelm a reader with a slew of never-ending darkness, violence and despair. For some, it can be a bit too much. I enjoy reading these characters, who are often quippy, a little childish, and who make the other “normal” characters in a scene just roll their eyes and accept them for their quirks.

There is a caveat, I’ve found, to writing a comedic character into a heavy story line, and that comes in the form of this character’s believability. Yes, they are the fresh breath of humor in dark places, but the important thing to remember is that they are “people” (and I say “people” because maybe your character isn’t exactly human), and they need to experience appropriate emotions in proportion to the amount of tension, horror, suspense, or despair within the fiction.

If you’re writing a scene where your band of travelers journeys back home to their village and finds that everyone’s been brutally murdered, they would all be devastated. Yes, your comedic character may have pushed out some witty comment after a particularly bloody fight scene, perhaps scoffing at their enemy’s lack of proper fighting skills and spouting their own talents with overdone bravado, but when it comes time for the horror and rage of finding their village destroyed with no signs of life, this comedic character must be included in that despair. Otherwise, your reader will write him off immediately as a terrible person, someone who they despise and no longer want to succeed, and they may often wonder what’s wrong with your protagonist for allowing this nasty person to continue on their journey as part of the “team”. If that’s not what you’re going for, that can be a disastrous result for your book as a whole.

If used correctly, however, a scene where the comedic character shuts up, really gets angry, or finally sheds a tear can add so much weight to the terrible scene – maybe even more than could have been achieved without this character. Something like: “Even Harry cowered under her gaze, and he never showed anything but overflowing confidence.”

 Using Opposing Personalities to Create Levity

This is my preferred method, which I use far more often in my work because it just comes more naturally to me. I have a fondness for “the awkward moment”, and love to create characters who are far outside the social norms of civility, acceptability, and even toleration. I love writing about people who everybody wants to dislike but just can’t help themselves from enjoying, and when used for that little bit of levity, I think it’s really effective.

Most of the time, this is achieved through giving a character some sort of personality trait that just seems absolutely ridiculous from the outside, but that they themselves take very seriously (as opposed to the comedic character, who most often has a grand sense of sarcasm and wit of which they themselves are completely aware. They try to be funny). This inserts a feeling of outlandishness into the story, and when juxtaposed by the tension, particularly rough scene, or even another character’s discomfort, it seems funny.

For instance, say your current scene takes place on the eve of a great battle. Emotions run high, the camp is full of tension, and the soldiers understand that, come the morning, they will most likely die on the battlefield. But they’ve committed to it anyways. This is your protagonist’s first battle, and he’s terrified. He’s never known what it’s like the night before a fight, and he has been thrust into this situation without knowing many of the other soldiers around him. He looks over to see a large, muscular, bald-headed man with a huge grizzly beard stand up a few feet away. The man looks battle-hardened, intimidating, and wields a broadsword that weighs as much as your protagonist. Instead of stoically waiting in the tension and scowling out at all the other soldiers, this bald man proceeds to strip down to nothing more than his tiny undergarments, shove his speartip into the ground so it quivers there on its own, and performs a lengthy series of jumping jacks.

This is weird. It’s freezing outside, and your protagonist could never conceive of stripping down in the cold, let alone in the presence of so many other people. When the man finishes his routine, your protagonist works up the courage to ask the man what in the world he was doing. The giant bald man’s only reply is, “That’s how a real man prepares for battle. It gives me strength.” And then he thumps his chest with a fist, gathers up his clothes, and walks into his tent like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

You could go further into your protagonist’s thoughts; he either smiles at the strangeness of it and feels somewhat better, or he’s stunned into silence and is even more afraid of the man for having done something so strange. Either way, the little detail lightens a bit of the tension, and gives an interesting twist. It also has the potential to incorporate a new, interesting character (though odd), should you choose to make the bald man a part of your hero’s journey.

If you create someone with a personality that opposes your main character, whether in thought, emotion, or action while maintaining that this “odd” character is totally set in their ways and believes what they’re doing is perfectly normal, the ridiculousness of the moment is made believable by that character themselves. The humor can exist in that character’s weird tendencies, in your protagonist’s reactions to it, or in a combination of the two.

There are so many types of personalities out there, so many different quirks and oddities to add to supporting characters, that you can use almost anything gross, off-putting, or uncomfortable to lighten the mood. I’ve even done this within my own protagonists, and the levity exists from the supporting characters’ reactions and the protagonist’s complete lack of understanding of “what is normal”.

Yes, there is such a thing as “being too ridiculous”, especially in dark fiction. But if you use it sparingly and tread with caution through the realm of comedic relief, it can have phenomenal effects on how believable and enjoyable your book will become.

I’d love to hear what elements you use in your own fiction to “lighten the mood”, what you never use, what you resort to, and when you feel you need to add a little levity the most.

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