When Comedy Falls Flat: The Difficulties of Writing Comedy

 

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I couldn’t resist posting that new cover from EBook Launch  for ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’. I think the former one was too cartoon like.  Some might say that there is a difficulty with this one in it being too romantic. That all fits in with the end of this post.  I do like it, though. I think the artist did a brilliant job. Sadly, Émile’s freckles are missing…

One of the problems with writing humour is that everyone’s sense of humour must be slightly different. Of course, there is mainstream comedy, and there is dark comedy, and there are satires and spoofs. What one person finds hilarious leaves another cold.

And that is the problem with comedy. If you don’t amuse, you can annoy. Comedy, or books with a strongly comic undertone, must surely be amongst the most difficult of genres to write.

For instance, I usually enjoy the writing of that writer of the mid-twentieth century Monica Dickens.  The regular reader of this blog won’t be surprised to find that I came across a copy of the first book I read by her, ‘One Pair of Hands’ at the age of twelve on one of those invaluable and innumerable bookshelves my mother had stocked with books bought by lot in furniture auctions. It was a 1930’s edition, and even had the postscript left out of modern editions, the discussion on ‘the servant problem’ at the end.

To digress a bit: Monica Dickens was the great-grand-daughter of Charles Dickens,  a debutante who went to work as a ‘cook general’, an amazingly eccentric move in the UK of the 1930’s.  This led her to write this book of her experiences with various employers in the London of the Great Depression.

Work may have been scarce, but ‘good servants’ were equally so just before the outbreak of World War Two, as people came to regard the long hours, poor wages and necessary subservience of ‘service’ as demeaning. In Victorian times, any lower middle class household would have had its ‘Mary-Ann’ who had to do just about everything for her employers; in the 1930’s things had changed, while many employer’s attitudes had not, and Ms Dickens’ book was about just that, and written with sharp observation and humour.

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The edition that I found on my parents’ bookshelves.

I found some other books of hers on the shelves, including, ‘Man Overboard’. This, an account of the misadventures of a British naval officer axed by a reduction in the navy circa 1955, I found so dull that I nearly stopped reading it, save then – as now –  a stupidly stubborn streak usually kept me reading a book I didn’t enjoy as ‘I’ve put this much effort into it; I might as well go on to the end.’

Most of it hardly raised a smile from me. That was, until I got to the climatic bit, which is is fact, the protagonist’s coming to a sense of proportion through the death of his father. At twelve, I was shocked to find that Monica Dickens had written a humorous depiction of a funeral. I had thought myself irreverent! That was black comedy indeed, and I was full of admiration that back in the conventional 1950’s she had dared to write it.

She did not in any way ridicule the grief of the mourners, but she did send up the foolish emptiness of many of the rituals, and much hypocrisy on the part of various distant relatives to a family loss. I was fascinated at how a humorous attitude towards life’s tragedies can in fact be a great bulwark, and I think I learnt a lot about dark comedy.

I read various other books of hers that I did consider funny (and tragic, for this author often combined the two). ‘Kate and Emma’ was one, ‘The Heart of London’ was another, and ‘The Listeners’ was another ( and no, that isn’t about the day-to-day ups and downs of the hard working people who do surveillance; it is about the author’s experience as a member of The Samaritans).

But I am unable to say why it was exactly that I found some of this author’s work hilarious, and other parts only raised from me a weary smile. It might have been that ‘Man Overboard’ was told from the point of view of the male protagonist, whereas her books are usually either told from the point of view of a female one, or have multiple points of view.

Another aside: How I wish that style of writing would come back into fashion…

It could just be that every comic situation depicted in that book left me cold until the end.

And that is one of the perils of writing comedy. When it falls flat, it’s about as acceptable to the reader as a heavy cold pancake, without any sugar, lemon, syrup, etc.

When it fails, it often frankly grates. Far more so than, for instance, pathos which misses the mark and turns into bathos, which after all, does make you smile at least.

I found this a couple of years ago, when I read some of a comic series by a female author. The books were well written. I enjoyed the first. In it, the heroine allowed herself to be beguiled by a charming wastrel, who subsequently let her down and wandered off with a regretful wave.

On beginning the second, I realised with dismay that the scenario was much the same as in the first. The protagonist had learnt nothing from being so badly let down by the first anti -hero. She met another one here, a supposedly different character, but in fact, virtually identical to the unreliable lover in the first. He looked the same, and his character flaws were identical. The heroine allowed herself to be drawn in by  him in exactly the same way as she had with the first, and he let her down in just the same way . So indecisive was he, that he didn’t even finish things properly; he wandered off exactly like the first, possibly to return in some future volume.

I looked at the third. Here that same anti-hero was again, hardly changed at all, though with a different name and a slightly different hair colour, being unreliable and winning the heroine’s heart and letting her down all over again…

This was obviously the case of a protagonist who learnt nothing and remained static. She was depicted as being supposedly sophisticated and in her late thirties. The author obviously found her guillable nature adorable, but for myself, I only find a naïve and ridiculously romantic female protagonist charming if she is young and inexperienced. If my own twenty-one-year-old Sophie de Courcy had led a less sheltered life, then her romantic silliness over the eponymous Scoundrel Émile  would have been  less exusable…

The protagonist of the series I mentioned seemed to have had many love affairs, but in the ones the reader is shown she was a sort of romantic recidivist, falling for the same sort of man, and being exploited in exactly the same way, again and again and never learning anything. In subsequent volumes, the former exploiters had a habit of returning with a weak apology, and the starry eyed heroine would admit them to her bed all over again before they strayed off again…

It was certainly realistic about a certain sort of woman. I found these constant re-runs of the first story not hilarious, as it is clear from the reviews that many did, but irritating.

There are in fact, ways in which an author can allow her protagonist to make the same mistake about one character, a love object, without depicting her as a static character incapable of learning. Magic is one, hypnosis is another, and a theme involving re-incarnation is a third.

In fact, in one of my favourite fantasy series, ‘Child of the Erinyes’ by R A Lochlann, a combination of these magical and reincarnation explanation is used to great effect. The heroine has no memory of the anti-hero’s abuse of her in previous incarnations, and so we do not become frustrated with her.

I suppose the author of the series about the non-developing woman had looked at some of the characters in classic comedy – ie, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, and seen that they were essentially static, but this in no way detracted from people’s enjoyment of the stories.

And the odd thing is, that I enjoy those stories, myself.

She may have been right in her assessment. In all fairness, only a minority of reviewers reacted as I did. The majority seemed to enjoy the female protagonist, and to root for her without respecting her, chuckling indulgently as she made the same mistake about men all over again.

Which comes back to my point; writing comedy is so hazardous precisely because readers’ tastes and sense of the ridiculous differ so greatly.

A reader of  one of ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ wrote to me, ‘I found it read more as a straight paranormal romance. I couldn’t find any spoof elements.’

She added, ‘But I really enjoyed it.’

Well, that’s the main thing, anyway…

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Character Development: Some Classic Best Sellers Without Much of It…

 

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No giant insect visible….

A couple of years ago, the latest thing in discussing novels online  or leaving reviews seemed to be a lot of talk about ‘character development’. I haven’t heard so much about it of late- maybe I haven’t been looking – but back then it seemed as if you couldn’t read a single review without that dreaded ‘character development’ coming into it , and no, it didn’t mean the hero’s chest and waist measurement.

Authors got paranoid about it. ‘Does my character develop enough’ was becoming the greatest fear. I saw reviews from that time where bestselling authors were slated because their characters didn’t undergo an obvious change by chapter two.

In a way, all this seems the more unfair, when one considers how many classical authors wholly neglected this aspect of writing.

Well, Kafka at least would have been all right regarding an early depiction of character development in his 1915 novel ‘ Metamorphoses’, as Gregor Samsa undergoes a rather ‘life changing’ alteration in the first sentence. After that, though, he doesn’t seem to do a whole lot else except be ill treated and fed on rotten food for the rest of the novel.

Interestingly, and I’ve touched on this before – there are any number of classic books where the characters remain static. Dickens didn’t bother about it generally for his heroes and heroines. In ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay at the end are just the same as they were at the beginning, only a bit older.

With regard to the secondary characters, Sidney Carton the inert cynic, falls passionately in love with Lucie, and remains hopelessly in love with her for about ten years, and it is that which leads him to replace Charles Darnay as he awaits execution at the end, but that is about all the changing he does. He starts off a hopeless drunken loser and remains one. Does Dr Manette undergo any particular changes during the novel? Not so you’d notice; he gets addicted to making shoes in his long stint in gaol, so perhaps that counts a bit.

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There are exceptions in Dickens, to be fair. There are those characters who undergo a massive moral reformation, like Ebenezer Scrooge, or less dramatically, Pip in ‘Great Expectations’. Still, overall, good old character development wasn’t Dickens’ forte, and his sales were never seemingly affected by the lack of it. Maybe readers of the mid Victorian era didn’t like it very much. In fact, a good many of Dicken’s minor character characters, traditionally celebrated as ‘great characters’ are in fact stereotypes.

Of course, the whole issue of how far secondary characters are to be depicted as changing in a novel, and how much attention is to be devoted to this, and how much space is to be devoted to them anyway, is all highly debatable to this day. More on that in my next post.

P G Wodehouse- of course – made a fortune in writing about stereoptypes and static characters. We leave Bertie Wooster and Jeeves (does anyone know his first name? Does he know it himself?) exactly as they were when we met them. Bingham Little gets married, of course, to the romance writer Rosie M Banks, but that doesn’t seem to change his lifestyle much.

I was about twelve when I first read those, and I hoped that Bertie Wooster would end up getting married himself, but no such thing. In fact, in one story, one of his friends or relatives remarks that Jeeves will never allow that, and I never enjoyed the stories so much after that: it made Jeeves seem positively sinister. Perhaps he is a control freak? A Freudian study of that relationship might prove most rewarding.

I have to say, I never noticed any particular alterations in the characters of the heroines or the heroes of the couple of the 1950’s Mary Stewart novels I read, either. I personally don’t enjoy her writing, but she is highly regarded as the inventor of romantic suspense and a fine writer besides.  Still, it was a long time ago that I did read them, and I may have missed something.

Going back a good bit, there’s the question of how much character development there is in Jane Austen. Obviously, her most famous novel, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is centred about  a couple who do change throughout the course of the novel, and we know which qualities they are going to change from the title, but how about the other characters?
They are wholly believable, but they all – Mr and Mrs Bennett, Jane, Bingley, Lydia, Wickham, Mr Collins and so on, seem to leave the novel pretty much as they entered it.

They were well drawn and convincing at the beginning, and they are well drawn and convincing at the end, but they seem to remain static. Well, come to think of it, maybe Mary and Kitty do develop a bit. Mary is happier, because we learn that she is no longer mortified by being compared to her prettiest sisters, while Kitty, we read, becomes ‘less insipid’.

Quite often in love stories, in fact, all the transformation that seems to be required of a character is for him or her to transfer his or her love from one character to another – that would appear to be all the change that Edmund Bertram undergoes in ‘Mansfield Park’. The heroine Fanny Bertram does develop; she changes from a shy girl into a poised and efficient parson’s wife for Edmund, but she remains, I am sorry to say, priggish and humourless from beginning to end of the story.

Marianne Dashwood in ‘Sense and Sensibility’, of course, does indeed have an alteration in character. I have often said that I found the subduing of her passionate and rebellious spirit one of the most depressing parts of Jane Austen’s writing.

To my shame, I must admit that I have only read two of Thackeray’s novels, ‘Vanity Fair’ and ‘The Luck of Barry Lyndon’. He troubled about this modern bugbear of character development not at all. The villainous Barry Lyndon’s luck may change, but he remains the same faithless, fickle scoundrel at the end of his memoirs, save he is now living (attended by his mother, and in a good deal of comfort) in a debtor’s prison.

The same is nearly as true of another con-artist in classical literature, Becky Sharp in ‘Vanity Fair’. This enduringly successful novel has very little in the way of changing characters, a bit of moral repentance from secondary characters aside, and Becky is too villainous to go into any of that.

She is shown as becoming more conniving, it is true. At the beginning of the story she is openly rebellious. When the carriage she shares with Amelia Sedley leaves the boarding school where she has been employed as a drudge she shouts, ‘Vive Boneparte.’
At first, her lying and scheming is a bit blatant – she makes the mistake of claiming to love children to Amelia Sedley, and even the often undiscerning Amelia could not fail to see how much she had disliked the small girls at school. Within a chapter or so, however, she becomes a consummate hypocrite, and an arch manipulator, and stays that way from then on.

The character of Rawdon Crawley, Becky’s husband and for years her dupe and partner in crime, does have a moral reformation, apparently caused by fatherhood, though we are not given any access to his mental processes. His admiration for his sister-in-law Lady Jane appears to play a part in this.

He is even shown as feeling some shame about having cheated George Osborne out of his inheritance at gambling – when he meets the old Mr Sedley and he mentions him, Thackeray says Rawdon ‘flushes up red’ – and ‘blackleg’ (ie, card cheat in Regency slang) and Becky’s dupe though he has been, he is outraged when he learns that he is viewed as a ‘complacent husband’. He knocks down Lord Steyne when he finds him alone with Becky, and wishes to challange him to a duel, but he aging libertine sneaks out of it.

Amelia Sedley doesn’t change, but is of those characters whose love is transferred from one character to another. She ceases to worship the memory of the late George Osborne, apparently believing all Becky’s harsh words about him – and begins to worship the dull but worthy Dobbin, giant feet and all.

So, we may well envy those earlier writers for the easy time they had regarding depiction of character.

Still,now there is a wealth of online advice for authors about how to pursue character development on line. Here, for instance, are just two of many excellent articles.
here
and

here

That is actually by the Reader’s Digest – not the sort of publication I like to recommend – but it is very good.
here

Perhaps, if Fanny Burney had read these, she might have thought, ‘Hmm. It might be better if in my novel, there is just one person who doesn’t admire or envy Evelina…’

Maybe Charles Dickens might even have thought: ‘I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to make Charles Darnay a little more interesting…’