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Humor and Fiction

by William H. Coles

Humor, in the main, is something that pleases us, a characteristic alone that can help writers improve the quality of their literary fictional stories. That said, good definitions and valid generalizations about humor are hard to come by. What really amuses us? Who finds what funny? How can literary fiction be enhanced?

For practicality, humor can be thought of as a spectrum; on one spectrum end is buffoonery, ridicule, slip-on-a-banana-peel sort of humor — primarily visual or auditory — and on the other end is humor based on ideas — often incongruous, new awareness, comparisons, mutually understood and agreed upon disparities. Irony resides in this more intellectual end of the spectrum, arguably the most useful humor concept for writers of literary fiction. Whatever we might identify as humor is always dependent on numerous inciting conditions and receptive states that are constantly changing.

A dominant characteristic of humor is surprise, which is entwined in expectations and misdirection. Closely related are comparisons — a source of extensive academic literary analysis — that create incongruities and disparity from norms, and that are pleasurable. And timing is an encompassing and essential element. All this not only improves quality of story, but can improve memorable style characteristics too.

Overall, for the writer, humor is a rich resource. There is always something new. Humor continuously changes as life progresses, and although any serious dissection of humor for better comprehension is immediately outdated, new humor elements constantly increase resources for a writer. Compare humor possibilities of Mark Twain to those of the contemporary writer who has so many more life experiences to draw from.

Story and Character

In well-crafted fiction, reader enjoyment is primarily related to the way stories are told through a series of actions or events that engage the reader and cause meaningful change in the characters.1 This character enlightenment translates to enlightenment and meaning in the reader. A less effective way of telling fiction is descriptive events in narration, which hobbles advantages of creative imagination. It is in stories presented through action — and narrated with sophistication — that the intricacies of humor, fired by the imagination, are best applied.2

We are defined by humor in more ways than we might think, and humor often reveals more about us than we might realize ourselves — a useful tool for the writer. This is true with fictional characters, too. In fiction, major characters must be unique, credible, have at least a touch of hero, must be capable of changing people and events — and capable of change within themselves. Characters cannot be cut off or inaccessibly boxed (in the writing) to the possibility of change. Characters also must not be trivial, that is, without emotion, action or thought. In literary fiction, the author depends on the character to carry the story. Failure in character creation fails to engage a reader and causes story failure. In developing memorable characters there are three unavoidable elements in literary fiction:  (1) core desire, (2) a morality weather vane whose position is always known by the reader, and (3) humor.3

Although humor is the character element discussed, others should not be ignored for building effective characters.

Using humor elements

Successful humor in prose fiction most often is embedded in the creative style of the author through a thorough understanding of what humor can do for writing.

Trying to recreate humor through descriptive narration of the humorous event is almost always doomed to be less humorous than the event itself. Most successful humor in prose is transferred by engagement of reader in story — and characters — and experiencing humor through action. We’ve all tried to tell someone something that made us laugh, and after failing, thrown up our hands in exasperation and said “you should have been there.” As writers, we need to place our readers “there,” and avoid describing something we found funny.

A joke or a funny after dinner story is not often useful for the literary writer. Instead, understanding the elements of humor and then incorporating these elements into style are most valuable. Selected elements are:

  • Surprise — something unexpected and often a shift in perspective
  • Misdirection
  • Incongruous juxtaposition
  • Exact timing of inciting and responding
  • Ridicule (social nonconformities)
  • A “cognitive shift” created by a discovery or solution to a puzzle or problem

A sense of humor is the ability of a human to experience humor. Humor, however, is specific for each individual and depends on a host of variables:  location, culture, maturity, education, intelligence and context.


For the literary fiction writer, irony is the circulation for the story corpus. In general, irony is the expression of meaning by saying the opposite, often to humorous effect. Although there is considerable overlap, there are useful forms of irony often described in literature.

Verbal irony is saying the opposite of what is meant. (“What a wonderful play!” when the audience left before the end of the first act.) Situational irony is an outcome that turns out to be very different from what was expected. (A contractor builds a church that looks like a cow barn.) In dramatic irony in prose, the reader, or the narrator at times, realizes implications of words or acts that the characters do not perceive. (An irritatingly verbose character says to a rarely verbal spouse:  “Harold, stop talking for a few seconds; I can’t get a word in edgewise.”)

Irony usually evolves as the story structure is formed and as the writer creates. Rarely, if ever, are literary stories created on preformed specific ironies that structure the story or are injected into a finished story like drugs into an arm vein.


In summary, humor pleases readers of literary fiction and develops characters into memorable and useful entities. Here are specific advantages a writer can expect to acquire when learning to understand how humor works in prose fiction.

Humor: arouses interest in the story, sustains attention, helps reader connect with characters, helps emphasize and relate ideas, helps create images in reader’s mind, makes story more memorable, and makes readers feel good.


1 Humor is most effective in the great literary fictional story that lasts and that is written with a structured process, working with logic, consistency, balance and priorities toward a known ending with meaning (although the ending may change during the creative process). In addition, memorable literary fiction is imagined for effective drama and maximum character development. Every story has meaning, most often directly related to an awakening or enlightenment of the character that is self-generated from conflicts and actions in the story. Finally, every successful story is enjoyable, and changes the thinking of the reader in irreversible ways .

2 There are dangers of humor in fiction, however. Genre fiction writers are often comedic, but the literary fiction writer using humor may, if not skillfully rendered, make the writing seem forced and artificial. And humor not well thought out or reasonably incorporated can offend readers. In general, literary fiction involves character, and misconceived humor may create ridicule and demean crucial characters, which in turn, spoils a story effect. In spite of pitfalls, literary writers can still learn to incorporate humor for better character development and enjoyment, without loss of credibility and strong sympathetic reader involvement. It takes practice, skill, talent and much thought about story and story purpose.

3 The ironies that drive parody and satire are often concretely formed before, or early in, the writing process.

Satire = the use of humor to characterize human stupidity or vices.

Parody = imitation of a writer’s style with deliberate exaggeration for comic effect.


You might also like to read more about humor in The Kenyon Lecture:

“How Humor Works in Literary Fiction.”


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6 thoughts on “Humor and Fiction

  • Susan cockel

    Thank you for you essay.

    I am going to a workshop on humor in children’s books. Your information helped me to better understand.

  • Patti

    This was interesting. As a consumer, I go to the bookstore, and try to find a book. I’m weary of romance, sick of vampires and werewolves, can only believe so much science fiction and I’m at a loss. I’d love to read something that would make me laugh, escape and just forget the world of working my butt off, wars, earthquakes and everyday reality. I want something funny. I think that’s why we loved MASH so much, years ago. Yes, it was set during the Korean War and at times it was so sad it made me cry. But there were so many times I about peed my pants laughing at the humor. The original writer of MASH took something everyday and horrible and made it laughable. As a writer, that’s what I want to do. Is there a market for this anymore? Are there humorous books on the NY Times Bestseller Lists?
    just wondering…..

    • admin

      I sympathize with your problem. I don’t know when, or if, it was on a bestseller list but Freddy and Fredricka, by Mark Helprin, has been well received a a literary novel with humor. Both my wife and I enjoyed it, and recommend it. Thanks for your comment. WHC

    • admin

      There are many very good books on writing comedy for contemporary audiences. And the history of comedy can also help polish skills in effective comedy. Although writing comedy well is useful to the fiction writer, for the most part, it is the embodiment of the essence of humor in the fictional story that compliments the fictional story purpose, without comedy becoming the prime reason for the writing. A limerick, for example, is always fun. Using a limerick in a fictional story successfully–without stopping the story flow–would be tricky. Yet, full knowledge of how and why a limerick makes us laugh is of great value even in a tragic fictional story when the author is striving for excellence. Thanks for your comment. WHC