How Humor Works in Fiction, by William H. Coles

Lecture presented at Kenyon College
June 25, 2009

Webster’s dictionary says humor means “something that is or is designed to be amusing.” That seems a little sparse. Humor is really this monumentally complex subject that affects every human as regular, and as necessary, as a heartbeat.

The neat thing about all forms of humor is that they make us feel good. And isn’t that what life is really all about? Moment to moment. Year to year. “How are you feeling this morning?” “Feeling good, thank you.” In fact, in some ways our entire existence is seeking change for the better to feel good. We work to make money to essentially feel better. We play sports to feel better about ourselves. We go to movies, read books, eat chocolate–to feel better. The point is humor is a feeling, both intellectual and physiologic, that gives us pleasure, and we constantly seek humor for pleasure.

The understanding of humor has a misty history. In ancient times, humor was the juice of an animal or plant. To Aristotle and the Greeks, humor was synonymous with satire, and the use of humor indicated a solid understanding of the human condition at the time. In the middle ages, humors were four elements: blood, yellow bile, phlegm, and black bile.  These were believed to give off vapors to the brain that determined temperament, a mysterious way of thinking about human existence, in my mind. Today, understanding of humor is complicated and still evolving. For writers to find what works, humor has common elements. As a foundation for understanding, we’ll search for elements of humor. As we start, I’ll point out that “comic” refers to the stimulus and “humor,” to the response. So the following examples will have both stimulus and response.

So what really makes people laugh, be amused, feel good?

Humor depends either on a change in perception or differences when  one thing is compared to another. Changes and differences are stimuli that cause a humor response. A response can be a laugh, a chuckle,  amusement, or simply a change in the way we think about things. For humor to be triggered, surprise is another essential. With the two core elements of change and surprise, let’s look to some of the comic-stimulus aspects of humor.

A CEO stands before his company’s shareholders to honor an employee for twenty-five years of loyal service.

Today we would like to thank Albert for his service to our company. Albert is someone who does not know the meaning of impossible task, who does not know the meaning of lunch break, who does not understand the meaning of the word no. So we have taken a collection and bought Albert a dictionary.

This has the element of surprise, the unexpected. As we will continue to see, surprise is at the core of the instigation of the humor response.

A man walked into a bar, sat down, and ordered a beer. As he sipped the beer, he heard a voice say, “Nice tie.” Looking around, he saw that the bar was empty except for him and the bartender. A few sips later, another voice said, “Beautiful shirt.” At this, the man called the bartender over. “Say, I must be losing my mind,” he told him. “I keep hearing these voices say nice things, and there is not a soul in here but us.” “It’s the peanuts,” explains the bartender, indicating a dish at the end of the bar. “The peanuts?” “That’s right, the peanuts–they’re complimentary.”

In this example the stimulus is a pun; two words that sound the same but have different meaning–complimentary the praise, and complementary the free add on. Samuel Johnson called “Pun (n.): the lowest form of humor,” which has always made me feel inferior since I like more than a few puns.
Note still, even in the pun, the essential element of surprise.

This next example is a misunderstanding, a misdirection, that is a surprise.

This woman was in a dress shop and found a dress she liked. “Could I try on that dress in the window?” she said.
The shop assistant looked up: “Sorry, Madame, you’ll have to use the changing rooms like everyone else.”

One marvelous aspect of humor is the variability of what makes us laugh. A stimulus based on expressing something we never thought about before, often a form of syntactical manipulation. And it’s always based on the design to surprise.

A guy walks into a bar and sits down next to a lady and a dog. The man asks, “Does your dog bite?” The lady answers, “Never!” The man reaches out to pet the dog, and the dog bites his hand. The man says, “I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite!” The woman replies, “He doesn’t. That’s not my dog.”

It is obvious that humor relates to background, social perceptions, geographical location, culture, maturity, level of education, to name a few. And humans use humor to connect with each other.

I served on the board of the American College of Surgeons. The meetings were intense, and the College would feed us dinner at one of Chicago’s best restaurants where we would all sit around one table with familial camaraderie. On my first meeting, after dinner, the board president pointed to us one by one and each member got up and told a joke or humorous story. I was unsettled, to say the least. I wasn’t funny and didn’t like most stand-up jokes. When my turn came, I passed. There were groans of disapproval and I sensed a coolness from the members. So for the next meeting, I found this joke. When the time came, I stood with damp armpits and said:

An overworked New York doctor had a clone made of himself, an exact replica, to take over his practice. It worked well for a while but the clone had one serious flaw. His language was filthy with patients, four letter expletives, swearing, sexual innuendos. The doctor’s practice was soon down to a few patients a day. The doctor had to do something. He took the clone to the top of a Manhattan high-rise and pushed him off an observation platform.

As the doctor walked out of the building a police sergeant stopped him.

“What’s up,” asked the doctor.

“I’m sorry, sir, but your under arrest.”

“That’s ridiculous and totally without warrant. There are no laws about murdering a clone.”

“But, sir. It’s not about murder. I have to arrest you for making an obscene clone fall.”

Well, the bonding worked somewhat. I did sense a grateful you-gave-it-a-good-try camaraderie after my attempt that was not there before. Whether I was a better board member is another story.

This use of humor in bonding is common. We share humor with friends, test humor with strangers to judge their compatibility with us. Take this encounter.

On the eighteenth floor of a high rise, two men strangers wait for an elevator.After a few minutes one says, “Damn it. This is ridiculous. I’ve got an emergency and I’ll probably starve to death, right here looking at closed doors. Got a banana?”
The stranger responds. “I hear ya man. No banana . . . But I’ll be glad come to your funeral.”

Mutual smiles pass between the two, and a connection builds through humor.

Concentration of this bonding use of humor can be useful when defining credible and significant characters. Writers can gain ideas by simply listening and seeking examples of humor in their day to day lives.

I’m not suggesting that the value of humor for writers is memorizing jokes. But their value is in thinking about why we laugh, or feel good. Isolating the humor in these simplistic examples clarifies our thinking about humor so it then can be incorporated and used naturally in the fictional world and characters we create.

For change and surprise to be effective in causing a humor response, a mind-set, or a setup, is created. Once the mind-set is established, the timing of the stimulus is calculated to allow time for the brain to process the information in the mind-set. When the stimulus is delivered, the humor response is dependent on sensitivities, likes and dislikes, intelligence, and context. The exact time for stimulus delivery differs for every individual, according to their ability to process at the moment. Once the stimulus is delivered, the reversal occurs in the mind-set. An example:

As most of you are aware, there is a respected department of entomology here at Kenyon. Since the mid eighties the department has been chaired by the often quoted Dr. William Severance.

There was a writing student whom I met at a conference a few years back, and she was a friend of Nancy Zafris’s. I think her name was Anne. Anne went to school at Kenyon and studied with Dr. Severance in her third year.

One afternoon in the laboratory with Dr. Severance, Anne said “Do you see those two bugs, Doctor? … Which would you choose for a specimen?”

“Neither. There’s no difference between them. They’re the same species of Curculio. They’re weevils,” Severance said.

“If you had to choose for the display in the library,” Anne said. “If you were forced to chose. If there were no other option.”

Doctor Severance stared at her. “Well, then, if you’re going to push me, I would choose the one on the right. It’s longer and wider. Better for display.”

Anne smiled. “There, I have you, Doctor! Do you not know that in the Kenyon bylaws and policy manual, it says specifically, you must always choose the ‘lesser of two weevils’?”

A major portion of this story is devoted to mind-set. In constructing a mind-set, the purpose is to gain interest and intensity. Often, current situations are used.

In an interview with Kevin Nealon, the Saturday Night live standup comedian and actor, he described an ad-lib in a standard joke he uses in his comedy club routines. One of his performances was the day after Governor Blagojevich of Illinois was indicted for trying to sell Obama’s senate seat.

Nealon was on stage and began his usual joke about Christmas; how his family had a cap on Christmas giving where you could only pay fifty dollars or less for a gift; the audience thinks of a fifty dollar Christmas gift, which is the processing, and Nealon waits, this is the timing, and then he delivers this stimulus . . .

“Yeah my family’s got this secret Santa thing that doesn’t allow more than fifty dollars on each person, and so I got my father a Chrysler, and I bought my mother a seat in the Illinois senate.”

Nealon says he got a big laugh.

Kevin Nealon also believes there is a core of humor in every human. I believe him. I believe everyone who thinks freely has the ability to appreciate something that would change their perceptions in the direction for the better, and pleasure. I believe great writers have used this idea instinctively, and it is an essential component for their success.

How strange it is that humor dismantled is no longer humor. Any attempt to explain why something is humorous destroys the humor. E.B. White once said, “Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” We have something funny happen to us, and we tell it later to a friend who is not amused. “Well, you should have been there,” we say in defense of our failure. But it wasn’t the friend’s fault; we failed at the impossible task of recreating the elements of the specific humor stimulus.

A prevalent source of humor is ridicule, which is used effectively daily among humans. Ridicule isto subject someone to mockery, and ridicule uses ironic exaggeration to expose or criticize people’s stupidity or vices.

Here is an example, in poetry, but it still serves as an example of ridicule that would work exactly the same in prose. When the poem connects, the humor is from appreciating the complex satire, and the parody, that produces an internal satisfaction and pleasure. These are muted feelings, often without a laugh, but an inner pleasure that comes from a new awareness about something. This poem is a satire of Victorian England social perceptions and morals–two women sharing different, and ironic, points of view. The younger woman has been ruined . . . she’s lost her purity.

The Ruined Maid – by Thomas Hardy

“O ‘Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?”
“O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.

“You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!”
“Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,” said she.

“At home in the barton you said ‘thee’ and ‘thou,’
And ‘thik oon,’ and ‘theäs oon,’ and ‘t’other’; but now
Your talking quite fits ‘ee for high compa-ny!”
“Some polish is gained with one’s ruin,” said she.

“Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
But now I’m bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!”
“We never do work when we’re ruined,” said she.

“You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
And you’d sigh, and you’d sock; but at present you seem
To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!”
“True. One’s pretty lively when ruined,” said she.

“I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!”
“My dear a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,” said she.


Some humor attempts fail for many reasons. Failure may come from lack of understanding, or non acceptance of ridicule of people and ideas. This story is very well crafted but walks a delicate line, and not all are amused by it. The subject matter can grate against sensitivities of killing, bullying, being small, and for some, disliking Jewish stereotypes.

It’s a Woody Allen story.

“When I was little boy, I wanted a dog desperately, and we had no money. I was a tiny kid, and my parents couldn’t get me a dog, ’cause we just didn’t have the money, so they got me, instead of a dog – they told me it was a dog – they got me an ant. And I didn’t know any better, y’know, I thought it was a dog, I was a dumb kid. Called it ‘Spot’. I trained it, y’know. Here ‘Spot’. ‘Fetch.’ Coming home late one night, Sheldon Finklestein tried to bully me. Thank God Spot was with me. So I said to Spot “Kill!” Spot leapt forward and Sheldon stepped on my dog.”

It’s time to move on to more complex forms of humor that are based on what we’ve just reviewed. Remember that bases of humor are surprise, a mind-set and reversal, and that individual humor responses are variable and dependent on multiple factors. As we study more about humor for writers, remember these important elements:

Incongruous Juxtaposition
Timing of Inciting and Responding
Quality of the mind-set

A defined character sense of humor is essential to character development. How does the character use and respond to humor? But there is no doubt in character development, the writer’s sense of humor shapes and refines.

Let’s look at unarguably the greatest example of humorous character development, Shakespeare’s Falstaff.

Falstaff is everything bad to extreme, absurdly so. And Falstaff is ridiculous in appearance. He’s grossly overweight. The Queen calls him a tub of lard. He’s not a comic really, but he is a jokester, and every action seems unexpected, and often absurd.

In Henry IV Part one, during the robbery at Gads Hill, Falstaff is complaining that one of his fellow rogues has stolen his horse. He is irate that he can’t trust them, ironic since he is one of rogues too, and can’t be trusted either.

Then Prince Hal tells him to get down with his ear to the ground and listen for the travelers who are to be robbed.

Falstaff says Prince Hal doesn’t have the levers to get him up again.

Then he regrets moving so much flesh, that’s his flesh, from home. Falstaff tells Prince Hal to bring him his horse. Prince Hal says he’s not a stable boy. Falstaff says if that’s the way Prince Hal wants, he’ll turn informer, but ironically he’ll be also informing on himself. And so forth.

Based on the humor analysis I’ve already presented, I came up with these possibilities for why Falstaff is almost every audience’s favorite for number one humorous character.

1. There is disparity in strong personality traits, stupid but witty, dishonest but frank.
2. He is ridiculous in aspects of appearance and personality.
3. He actions are surprising and bizarre, both for the plot and the personality.
4. His language is based on the unexpected.

For further understanding, humor can be thought of as a spectrum. On the far left is vaudevillian, slapstick type of humor. In the middle would be jokes and humorous stories. And on the far right is the equally complex and more intellectually sophisticated topic of irony.

In literature, irony is saying one thing and meaning another. It is as an instrument of humor. Readers find pleasure in the complexities of ironies in good writing, and irony is important for developing character, and to develop meaning in a literary fictional story.

On a fundamental level we can look at fictional irony in traditional categories.

Verbal Irony: what is said is opposite of what is meant. “Lovely day out,” when the weather is the opposite.

In Eudora Welty’s The Ponder Heart, Edna Earle says: “My Uncle Daniel’s just like your uncle, if you’ve got one—only he has one weakness. He loves society and he gets carried away.” Edna Earle states her uncle has one weakness and yet she describes two. Verbal irony. The Ponder Heart is a great book to study for irony.

Situational Irony: an outcome that turns out to be very different from what was expected. Sam built a church and citizens of the town thought it was a barn. In Golding’s Lord of the Flies, boys survive an airplane crash and ironically wind up on a deserted island. Situational irony.

Dramatic Irony is where the audience or reader realizes implications of words or acts that the characters do not.

A clear example of dramatic irony is Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Brutus has murdered Caesar. Marc Antony rises above the crowd and says:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him;
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones,
So let it be with Caesar … The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answered it …
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest,
(For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all; all honourable men)

And Mark Antony continues . . .

Every reader reading the play, and everyone in Shakespeare’s audiences, knows more than the characters at the moment; they know the details of what happened before, they know Brutus, they know Caesar—it’s dramatic irony.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, ironic writing reached a pinnacle of honed craft. Here are classic authors that use irony to advance story to great effect. Chekhov, Austen, the Brontes, Henry James, Golding, O’Connor, Prichett, are a few authors I admire. Great ironic resources for study. Let me give you a few others, also valuable to know and study, but who fall, for my sensitivities, into ironic overload. Irony dominates over story: Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Nabokov’s Ada, Huxley’s Brave New World, Elliot’s The Wasteland. If irony is your pleasure, these are well worth your time.

In contemporary literary fiction, I believe intentional ironies are best used when consciously creating stories with an objective author, a story specific narrator, and the skillful use of character reliability and credibility. I think irony become ineffective in modern writing when the intuitive writer, often writing from experience, speaks directly or indirectly to the reader with filtered ironies for unrelated story purpose and meaning. By filtered ironies, I mean ironies that bypass and are unrelated to story purpose.

I want to continue to show how humor works in a subterranean way. Remember these elements I’ve reviewed in more simplistic humor: comic stimulus/humor response, change and surprise, incongruity, misdirection.

Let’s look at metaphor, not a common source of humor, and its relation to irony, which is humor based. My purpose is not so much to inform, but to impress the potential that language has to make great story telling, to impress that all of us as writers have rich tools available to us, and that ignoring the tools and their historical significance and development will probably prevent us from any chance of greatness as writers and storytellers.

Metaphor, as we know, is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object to which it is not literally applicable. Metaphor is a comparison, really, between two unlike objects or actions that makes us understand a new aspect of the objects themselves. For example:

“All the world is a stage,” from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”

Now the world is literally not a stage. And the metaphor works well, because world and stage have enough similarities, yet definite differences, for the reader to process new meaning. And there are lots of expansions to this metaphor: We might consider birth is a stage entrance, death is a stage exit, people are all actors, the world is a stage without intermissions, and so forth.

The important point is that most successful metaphors are positive in action. They expand. They build.

Let’s hold that thought for a minute and review irony. Irony is something that says one thing and means something else. And irony is not metaphor. Irony has something stated, and from context and the literal meaning, the author’s meaning is interpreted. Remember irony is a form of humor, closely related to ridicule and satire and parody. And because of these traits, irony is really, in effect, negative. The more we search for meaning in irony, the more it implodes upon itself, shrinking, in contrast to metaphor’s expansion.

Now let’s alter “All the world is a stage,” and introduce irony. As it is, “All the world is a stage” is straightforward metaphor. Here’s the alteration. God’s world is the devil’s stage. Again, God’s world is the devil’s stage. It’s not meant to be literally true. What is the author’s ironic meaning now? It might be that humanity is the devil’s work. Or that God is the one who creates evil in the world.

There is a clear difference in the effect of metaphor and irony; metaphor is mostly positive and expansive, and irony with a surprise but a contraction of thinking of an almost foreboding quality.

I don’t mean to convince you here about the value of metaphor and irony. I just want to point out there are differences in irony and metaphor, and when combined into ironic metaphors, as is often described, the effect is complex and complicated by sharp differences.

Here is an example of an ironic metaphor. Madonna is a pop-star icon. If you think of Madonna as the contemporary rich, sometimes blond, singer who gyrates, this is barely a metaphor. But if the Madonna is the Virgin Mary, this becomes a metaphor with significant irony. What is really meant about the Virgin Mary? Is it complimentary? We can’t tell.

The irony has stopped us, made us unsure from the instability of its meaning, and, in this case, does not contribute useful understanding for fiction.

My conclusion is this: The study of metaphor and irony are all worthy of a writer’s careful attention to gain control of language and the effect of language on the reader.

Now, a point about ambiguities in irony and in prose fiction. Be assured I am not presenting dogma here, but just ways of thinking about writing that I hope will be useful.

This is an idea about ironies in fictions but that also relates to all aspects of fiction. It is a concept about ambiguity and clarity and how the two differ in their effect in poetry and fiction. I borrowed and reshaped this idea from Wayne C Booth.

This is a haiku by Ezra Pound:

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Let me repeat.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Nothing humorous here, and the images and their relationships seem ungrounded. It seems to suggest the faces are petals, and the crowd a bough. And the bough image seems ominous, although I personally have a hard time visualizing it. This is an example of ambiguity and obscurity that stimulates thought and pleasure. This is certainly one of Pound’s most famous efforts, a favorite of mine, that leaves me with a feeling of loneliness and isolation, and a new sense of existence that is memorable—and pleasurable.

Poetry and lyrical prose often achieve effects through ambiguity, obscurity, and through tenuous metaphorical and ironic comparisons.

However, ambiguity in fiction may not carry the same effect. In fiction for best story achievement, clarity is important. To emphasize and understand how the ambiguity negatively affects the images and ideas that drive a story forward, here is an illustration redrawn from Booth.


Do you see the duck facing left? Or do you see the rabbit facing right? Once you’ve seen both, the drawing becomes neither; instead, it becomes an optical illusion that draws the attention and becomes the source of pleasure. The simplicity of drawing makes the illusion successful. It is ambiguous. If an artist refined the duck or the rabbit, or both, the ambiguity would be lost and the illusion lost. It is the ambiguity that produces the pleasure of the illusion. But it is the ambiguity that also destroys the identity and effectiveness of the duck and rabbit images.

 In fiction, ambiguity in irony tends to make the story writing unstable. It throws the thinking of the reader into puzzlement and mysteries to be solved. Most good fiction that tells a story needs the concrete. Ambiguity and obscurity, in general, do not make for strong fictional prose, ironic or not.

The concept may be helpful to some, and I recommend Wayne C. Booth’s two books, The Rhetoric of Irony and The Rhetoric of Fiction, where you’ll find I’ve freely interpreted Booth’s meaning, I hope in helpful ways.

I’ve presented a whirlwind overview of a spectrum of humor from jokes to characterization to the complexities of irony. If a writer can increase awareness of humor and then begin to incorporate it, not so much as a targeted goal, but as a subconscious resource for writing and storytelling, improvement is inevitable. Look what humor can do for a writer:

Humor can:
arouse interest
sustain attention
help readers connect to characters
help emphasize and relate ideas

Humor can:
help create images
make a story memorable
help transfer meaning
make readers feel good

I hear you —  you say, but I don’t see how this is going to help me when I’m hunched over my computer in a coffee shop. But if I’ve done my job well, you’ve already got what you need. Humor is human. And humanity is what great writing is about. And knowledge about humor is one way to achieve your best writing.

The literary fictional story is an art form with unique requirements for successful rendering. As you begin the life-long pleasure to explore the intricacies and mysteries of humor, you’ll explore your sense of humor and begin to appreciate the humor of others. But above all, you’ll begin to use humor in the imagination of characters and story, and improve the quality of your writing.

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3 thoughts on “How Humor Works in Fiction, by William H. Coles

  • Pingback: Works Cited | Farce in Fiction

  • numbsain

    Don’t forget about one-liners.
    Here are three original one-liners:

    How many light bulbs does it take to screw in a dyslexic?
    A-holes are just nice people turned upside down.
    Are you feeling lucky kid?

    And one by John Cleese:

    If God hadn’t meant for us to eat animals, why did He make them out of meat?