Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Shortest Distance Between Reader and Character is a Punchline

     As a writer, I've always felt that the fastest way to achieve depth and dimension while delineating a fictional character is by giving them a good sense of humor. Not only that but giving them one all their own. As a reader, this is what I look for when I read a new book by a new author and most of the time I'm disappointed, Granted, humor in a work of dramatic or thrilling fiction isn't exactly a prerequisite per se but it certainly helps give a protagonist a dimensional heft that's often conspicuously missing. Which is unfortunate because reader preferences over the last two decades or so have moved from event-driven to character-driven fiction.
     Giving a specific character good punchlines offers immediate and invaluable access to their mind even when described in third person. Whether their style of humor is vitriolic, dry or just flat-out funny, listening to them while advancing or at least not detracting from the plot offers the reader unguarded moments into that character's world view and perhaps even a hint about their past.
     To cite an example from one of my own books, I think perhaps the best punchline in Tatterdemalion came right after the protagonist Scott Carson has a public spat in front of the whole team with Buffalo Bill Cody. Carson, at first reluctant to go on Bill's grand adventure chasing Jack the Ripper, is chafing under the bit and is frustrated about being left in the dark. He calls Bill a fraud for presenting the Wild West in his show as it never really was. Cut to the quick, Cody stalks upstairs.
     Carson immediately runs up to apologize to him but also to find out why he's doing his level-headed best to keep the much younger man from the center of the action. Bill relates a story in which his old Civil War colleague, Wild Bill Hickok, shot a man dead right in front of him when the gunfighter was three years younger than Carson (18). Bill then concludes by saying he doesn't wish for Scott to turn into a stone cold killer (which alone not only helps to define Bill's depth and mode of thinking but also is an adroit piece of foreshadowing considering the harrowing ending).
     But to put a fillip to the exchange, Carson finally gets around to telling him, "I'm sorry I called you a fraud, Bill." Then he replies, "Apology accepted. And I'm sorry you're right."
     It's an unguarded, organic moment that doesn't necessarily detract from the plot as much as it helps delineate Buffalo Bill's character even more. Not only does it display his often laconic wit, it also shows in this vulnerable moment that he's capable of self-effacement if approached the proper way.
     In Lyndsay Faye's Timothy Wilde trilogy, the narrator and main protagonist, a charter member of the 1840's NYPD, has a mordant and trenchant sense of humor that's always aimed at his dissolute older brother and police superior Valentine and his old nemesis, the brothel madam Silky Marsh. In chapter two of the second book, Seven For a Secret, Wilde starts out by telling us,
I am that rarest of deviants in New York City: one who feels about politics the way most men feel about scraping pig dung off their boots. My antipathy stems from the fact that I spent most of my life thinking my brother, who is an enormous cog in the Democratic engine, one hundred per cent despicable. I'd been mistaken--- Val is only three quarters despicable.
      In 66 simple but beautifully-crafted words, Faye tells us with complete, ruthless honesty Timothy's loathing for the Tammany Democratic machine that brought the NYPD into existence, for politics in general as well as for his brother and why. She also gives us a bit of descriptive imagery as to what it was like to live in 1840s's Manhattan (pig shit on one's boots and nearly unanimous political engagement brilliantly synonymized in one simple simile).
     Despite the trilogy's troubling failings, Timothy Wilde's humor is almost invariably something of a marvel. Much of the complex and often stormy relationship with his older brother stems from the fact that when they were both boys, Valentine accidentally set fire to the family home and killed their parents. Then in 1845, the bar Timothy worked in was burned down, leaving him scarred for life. This is a man that has lost much in his life. Yet in Faye's universe, he not only retains his sense of humor, he also perseveres and becomes the NYPD's first detective.
     To cite another extremely worthy example of humor fleshing out a character, one could do much worse than look to Charlie Parker. Irish author John Connolly introduced Parker to us 15 years ago in one of the most spectacular debuts in recent commercial fiction with Every Dead Thing. The Parker series is a latter-day interpretation of the pulp fiction thrillers mastered by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Always told with a quasi-supernatural twist, if one were to imagine the wise-cracking Sam Spade in the woods of Maine or the streets of New Orleans, you'd begin to get a handle on Parker's psyche.
     What makes Parker virtually unique in modern day crime/horror fiction, aside from the freakishly high quality of his barbs that rival anything by the best TV and movie scriptwriters, is the sheer stubbornness and enduring nature of his sense of humor. In Every Dead Thing, Charlie Parker's entire family is slaughtered by an ingenious serial killer named The Traveling Man. Early in this debut, Parker is seen years after his wife's and daughter's murder and he says this:
     That's funny and is something right out of Sam Spade. Parker's humor is sharp, insightful, self deprecating but, at its core, is also a defense mechanism for a man who has no other defenses. And when one considers what this character has lost, it's a miracle he has a mind at all, let alone a rapier-like wit that's almost as dangerous as his gun.
     No one reasonably expects you or your characters to be Bob Hope or Rodney Dangerfield. But humor in your protagonist's psyche ought not be underestimated. Humor is something most readers appreciate and, if treated properly, can offer instant access to their minds whether you're writing about them in first or third person. As the canard goes, "Many a true word is spoken in jest." And we and our characters are never truer to our natures than when we're either scared or cracking wise.
     Which is often simultaneous.


At November 18, 2015 at 2:29 PM, Blogger MJ said...

Hi JP. I think this is the best post I've read here since at least last week. My humor gets darker when I'm in the ditch, figuratively speaking. Wait, that's not quite true - usually I claim that I have no sense of humor but it does pop up. From time to time.

At November 18, 2015 at 4:05 PM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

MJ: I've cross-posted links to this on all three of my Twitter accounts, repeatedly, without one link click. The apathetic twats that follow me on those Twitter accounts are some of the worst, most disinterested and laziest people in internet history. I honestly think many of them would literally rather die than click on a link to anything written by Robert Crawford. I'm the opposite of viral, the Rodney Dangerfield of novelists.

At November 20, 2015 at 3:15 AM, Blogger MJ said...

I'm not much of a Twitter user. I check into my account about once a month, whether I need to or not. I guess I haven't got the gist of Twitter yet. What an old fogey I am.
It must be that time of the month again.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

KindleindaWind, my writing blog.

All Time Classics

  • Our Worse Half: The 25 Most Embarrassing States.
  • The Missing Security Tapes From the World Trade Center.
  • It's a Blunderful Life.
  • The Civil War II
  • Sweet Jesus, I Hate America
  • Top Ten Conservative Books
  • I Am Mr. Ed
  • Glenn Beck: Racist, Hate Monger, Comedian
  • The Ten Worst Music Videos of all Time
  • Assclowns of the Week

  • Links to the first 33 Assclowns of the Week.
  • Links to Assclowns of the Week 38-63.
  • #106: The Turkey Has Landed edition
  • #105: Blame it on Paris or Putin edition
  • #104: Make Racism Great Again Also Labor Day edition
  • #103: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Toilet edition
  • #102: Orange is the New Fat edition
  • #101: Electoral College Dropouts edition
  • #100: Centennial of Silliness edition
  • #99: Dr. Strangehate edition
  • #98: Get Bentghazi edition
  • #97: SNAPping Your Fingers at the Poor edition
  • #96: Treat or Treat, Kiss My Ass edition
  • #95: Monumental Stupidity double-sized edition
  • #94: House of 'Tards edition
  • #93: You Da Bomb! edition.
  • #92: Akin to a Fool edition.
  • #91: Aurora Moronealis edition.
  • #90: Keep Your Gubmint Hands Off My High Pre'mums and Deductibles! edition.
  • #89: Occupy the Catbird Seat/Thanksgiving edition.
  • #88: Heil Hitler edition.
  • #87: Let Sleeping Elephants Lie edition.
  • #86: the Maniacs edition.
  • #85: The Top 50 Assclowns of 2010 edition.
  • #(19)84: Midterm Madness edition.
  • #83: Spill, Baby, Spill! edition.
  • #82: Leave Corporations Alone, They’re People! edition.
  • #81: Hatin' on Haiti edition.
  • #80: Don't Get Your Panties in a Twist edition.
  • #79: Top 50 Assclowns of 2009 edition.
  • #78: Nattering Nabobs of Negativism edition.
  • #77: ...And Justice For Once edition.
  • #76: Reading Tea Leaves/Labor Day edition.
  • #75: Diamond Jubilee/Inaugural Edition
  • #74: Dropping the Crystal Ball Edition
  • #73: The Twelve Assclowns of Christmas Edition
  • #72: Trick or Treat Election Day Edition
  • #71: Grand Theft Autocrats Edition
  • #70: Soulless Corporations and the Politicians Who Love Them Edition
  • Top 10 Things Donald Trump Said to President Obama
  • Paul Ryan's Top Ten Conditions on Running for the Speakership
  • Top 10 Reasons Why Mitt Romney Won't Run for President in 2016
  • Top 10 Results of the NYPD's Work Slowdown
  • Top 10 Secret Service Security Breaches
  • Top 10 LA Radio Shows That Are Rated Higher Than Rush Limbaugh's
  • Top 10 Reasons Operation American Spring Went Flat
  • Top Ten Facts of the MH370 Air Disaster
  • Top 10 Tips for GOP Congressmen Running Against Women
  • Top 10 Signs Walmart's Mistreating its Workers
  • Top 10 Diversions John McCain Found During Syria Hearing
  • Top 10 George Zimmerman Excuses for Speeding.
  • Top 10 Reasons Paula Deen Got Fired by the Food Network
  • Top Ten Ways Pope Francis is Deviating From Convention
  • Top 10 Reasons For the Pope's Resignation
  • Top 10 Emails Hacked From the Bush Family's Email Accounts
  • Top 10 Lies Told by Mitt Romney at the 2nd Debate.
  • Top 10 Examples of How Hard the Campaign Trail is on Ann D. Romney.
  • Top 10 Ways to Tell The Boston Red Sox Are Finished.
  • Top 10 Things Mitt May be Hiding in His Tax Returns.
  • Top 10 Events at the Romney Olympics.
  • Mitt Romney's Top 10 Wild & Crazy Moments.
  • Top Ten Reasons Why Dick Cheney Got a Heart Transplant.
  • Top 10 Facts About Tonight's New England/Denver Game.
  • My Top 10 Resolutions.
  • Top 10 Rejected Slogans of the Romney Campaign.
  • Top 10 Reasons Herman Cain Suspended His Campaign.
  • Top 10 Trending Topics on Twitter During #OWS Eviction.
  • Top 10 Herman Cain Pickup Lines.
  • Top 10 Changes Since Anthony Weiner Decided to Resign.
  • Top 10 Inaccuracies re bin Laden's Death.
  • Top 10 Ways to Prevent a TSA Patdown.
  • Top Ten Things Not to Say When You're Pulled Over.
  • Top 10 Reasons Why Donald Trump Bowed Out of the Presidential Race.
  • Top 10 Ways Evangelicals Will Prepare for the Rapture II.
  • Top 10 Revelations in Today's Parliament Inquiry into News Corp.
  • Top 10 Reasons Why There Was No Vote on the Debt Ceiling Last Night.
  • Top 10 Revelations in Dick Cheney's Upcoming Memoir.
  • Top Ten Ways Americans Will Observe the 10th Anniversary of 9/11.
  • Top Ten Advances in Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia.
  • Top Ten Inaccuracies in Bill O'Reilly's Book About Lincoln.
  • Top Ten Suggestions From the Cat Food Commission.
  • Top Ten Worst Moments in George W. Bush's Presidency.
  • Top Ten Facts in George W. Bush's Memoir.
  • Top Ten Reasons Terry Jones Postponed His Koran Burning
  • Top 10 Causes for Dick Cheney's Congestive Heart Failure
  • Top Ten Ways That Jan Brewer Will Celebrate Cinco de Mayo
  • Top Ten Demands in Sarah Palin's Contract
  • Top Ten Whoppers in Karl Rove's New Book
  • Top 10 Items Left Behind in Rush Limbaugh's Apartment
  • Top Ten Things Barack Obama said to Rush Limbaugh in the Hospital
  • Top Ten Bizarre Promos Offered by the New Jersey Nets
  • Top 10 Bush Executive Orders Labor Wants President Obama to Repeal
  • George W. Bush's Top Ten Lesser Achievements
  • Empire Of The Senseless.
  • Conservative Values for an Unsaved World.
  • Esquire's Charles Pierce.
  • Brilliant @ Breakfast.
  • The Burning Platform.
  • The Rant.
  • Mock, Paper, Scissors.
  • James Petras.
  • Towle Road.
  • Avedon's Sideshow (the new site).
  • At Largely, Larisa Alexandrovna's place.
  • The Daily Howler.
  • The DCist.
  • Greg Palast.
  • Jon Swift. RIP, Al.
  • God is For Suckers.
  • The Rude Pundit.
  • Driftglass.
  • Newshounds.
  • William Grigg, a great find.
  • Brad Blog.
  • Down With Tyranny!, Howie Klein's blog.
  • Wayne's World. Party time! Excellent!
  • Busted Knuckles, aka Ornery Bastard.
  • Mills River Progressive.
  • Right Wing Watch.
  • Earthbond Misfit.
  • Anosognosia.
  • Echidne of the Snakes.
  • They Gave Us a Republic.
  • The Gawker.
  • Outtake Online, Emmy-winner Charlotte Robinson's site.
  • Skippy, the Bush Kangaroo
  • No More Mr. Nice Blog.
  • Head On Radio Network, Bob Kincaid.
  • Spocko's Brain.
  • Pandagon.
  • Slackivist.
  • WTF Is It Now?
  • No Blood For Hubris.
  • Lydia Cornell, a very smart and accomplished lady.
  • Roger Ailes (the good one.)
  • BlondeSense.
  • The Smirking Chimp.
  • Hammer of the Blogs.
  • Vast Left Wing Conspiracy.
  • Argville.
  • Existentialist Cowboy.
  • The Progressive.
  • The Nation.
  • Mother Jones.
  • Vanity Fair.
  • Citizens For Legitimate Government.
  • News Finder.
  • Indy Media Center.
  • Lexis News.
  • Military Religious Freedom.
  • McClatchy Newspapers.
  • The New Yorker.
  • Bloggingheads TV, political vlogging.
  • Find, the next-best thing to Nexis.
  • Altweeklies, for the news you won't get just anywhere.
  • The Smirking Chimp
  • Don Emmerich's Peace Blog
  • Wikileaks.
  • The Peoples' Voice.
  • CIA World Fact Book.
  • IP address locator.
  • Tom Tomorrow's hilarious strip.
  • Babelfish, an instant, online translator. I love to translate Ann Coulter's site into German.
  • Newsmeat: Find out who's donating to whom.
  • Wikipedia.
  • Uncyclopedia.
  • Icasualties
  • Free Press
  • YouTube
  • The Bone Bridge.
  • Powered by Blogger