Hints on humour

Photo of Patricia McLinn
Patricia McLinn
18 June 2015
Patricia McLinn

When eligible singles are asked what they want in a potential mate a sense of humour is always one of the top must-haves. You know that. You’ve heard it a million times. So why wouldn’t readers also want to read about characters with a sense of humour in romances?

Of course that means you’re responsible for giving them a sense of humour, which isn’t quite as easy as giving them green eyes and a three-legged dog named Bingo. But don’t be scared. You don’t need a sideline as a stand-up comic to pull this off.

Nine hints on humour

1) Start small

Humour does not need to be slapstick. Humour does not need to bring down the house. And your story doesn’t need a howler premise. In fact, I’m one reader who’d prefer you avoid all that. Don’t put pressure on yourself to produce a laugh-riot on every page. Or at all. So, relax.

2) Let the characters bring in the humour

My favorite humour stems from the characters’ reactions to each other and to the events of the story. It’s their wry outlook that appeals to me – and to their potential mate. People often employ humour to defuse stressful or emotional situations and since we authors are busy piling stress and emotion onto our characters, it’s believable that they will need a fair amount of defusing. In fact, it’s only fair to let them have a little fun considering everything we put them through.

3) Let the characters bring in the humour naturally

Unless your characters are the ones with a career in stand-up comedy, don’t put that pressure on them. Or on yourself to produce it. In fact the humour shouldn’t come from you at all. It should come from the characters. Forced humour is not humourous. Much of the humour in my stories relies on the reader knowing the characters and the context. That’s why there are few examples in this article. Pulled out to stand alone at center stage, the lines don’t work. So don’t worry about honing stunning one-liners.

4) Humour in a story is in addition to the necessities of the story development and character arc

Humour must be a bonus because it won’t replace any of the requirements of a good story. On the other hand, humour is a great characterization tool. What a character finds funny and how s/he expresses it shows the reader a lot about that character.

In 'Jack's Heart', Jack is working hard to keep his distance from Val. When she asks about an element of his work as a ranch foreman, he tries to push her away:

He sidestepped that. “You want to know about the deworming, too? Killing all the parasites? Can’t do it too fast or the horse gets impacted from the mass of dead critters being expelled from its system at one time.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “You think you can gross me out with that? You’ve clearly never been a mother with a kid expelling the entire spectrum of disgusting stuff from every orifice simultaneously.”

“Nope, never have been a mother. But you’ve succeeded in grossing me out, so I’m going to work, where all I have to worry about is stepping in cowpies.”

But he was grinning as he turned away and walked out.

As she climbed the spiral stairs, she realized she was grinning, too.

Instead of Jack pushing Val away, she’s used wry humour to block that and to produce a moment of shared amusement – a moment of connection and another step in their relationship arc.

5) Don’t fall into the trap of relegating humour to secondary characters

Why limit this powerful characterization tool solely to secondary characters? Plus, you’ll run the risk of readers liking the secondary characters better than your main characters. Oh, and when the readers then want a story for the secondary characters, you’ve set up expectations that those characters will be humour machines, so then you will have to be a stand-up comic.

6) Build humour layer by layer

Just as a relationship builds layer by layer, so can humour. Instead of trying to produce humour the first time out, drop a seed, build it with a second reference, maybe a third, or more, before you go for the payoff. This also builds the readers’ anticipation.

In my book 'Hoops', the hero brings the heroine items he explains as his attempt to match her hair color. He actually starts doing it to get under her skin. But his motives change as things progress. In addition, her reactions – confusion, irritation, bemusement, pleasure -- track the development of their relationship. (Spoiler Alert) He finally succeeds in making a match with the ring box when he proposes. None of these hair-color-matching attempts is a knee-slapping moment. This is very low-key humour, a couple lines each, slipped in to scenes. Yet I can’t recall a single reader who commented on C.J.’s hair-matching efforts who didn’t smile at the recollection.

7) Try twists

Just as the readers anticipate the humour payoff, try a twist. Give them a different punchline from what they’re expecting. (In smaller doses, twists on familiar phrases can add serendipitous humour without the pace ever flagging.)

8) If in doubt put the humour in … then assess later if it works

Once the book is complete, you can truly assess the humour. Humour that builds characterisation, that reflects the growth of the relationship, that relieves a bit of tension (in order to build it even more) all at the same time – that’s humour to leave in. Humour that slows the pace, that takes the reader on a detour, that doesn’t fit the characters or their moment – that’s humour to take out.

9) Recognise that it’s not going to work for all readers

Notice that in Hint 8, I didn’t say to leave it in only if it’s universally funny. Humour is idiosyncratic. Surefire please-everybody humour is not a reasonable expectation.

Several of my books have been translated – to Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. Each translator has wrestled with much of the humour in them. That’s because much of my humour involves word play. But as hard as it might be for me to fathom, some people who speak English also don’t get my humour.

Some won’t get your humour, either.


Don’t let that stop you from letting your characters – and your readers – have a little fun along the way.

About Patricia McLinn

Patricia McLinn is the author of more than 25 romance, women's fiction and mystery novels. She is both traditionally and indie-published. Reviewers cite her work for strong, believable characters in witty, warm stories. You can find out more about her on her website.

Patricia will be in Melbourne to participate in the Romance Writers of Australia conference from 21-23 August 2015. Writers Victoria is a proud partner of this event.