Write on the Funny:
The Guide to Creating Humor in Fiction

     Out of all the House of Funny mirrors, the wiggly mirror of odd couples is the most useful to the fiction writer. 

     Why? The humor from the wiggly mirror comes from conflict -- the conflict you get when you put together two things that don't go together, like your head and your feet, or a long thin giraffe neck with short stubby dachshund legs. Conflict is also an essential element of fiction. In most stories it's the plot. Take the conflict out, and you have no story -- at least not one that would interest a reader for more than a couple of pages.     

     So what kind of conflict can you create to add humor to your writing? There are essentially three kinds: the character's conflict with the reality around him; the character's conflict with himself; and the character's conflict with other characters. 

     When a character conflicts with reality the odd couple is the world he is in and his view of what the world should be. He can be a realistic character in an absurd world, like Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Or he can be a realistic character in an absurd situation, like the mom in Freaky Friday who finds herself stuck in her daughter's body. He can also be a delusional character in the real world -- a skinny geek who thinks he's God's gift to women, a man who thinks he's a bird, a women who thinks everyone she sees is a spy... the list goes on and on.

     A character, however, can only conflict with himself in one way -- by wanting two contradictory things.  In The End, the hero wants to commit suicide, but he also wants to live. In Four Weddings and a Funeral he wants to get married, but he wants to stay a bachelor too. In Baby Boom, she wants to be a good mother, but she doesn't want to give up being a twenty-four-hours-a-day business woman. In Tootsie, he wants to go on working as a soap-opera starlet, but he also wants to give up the charade so he can tell the woman he loves the truth. The character can't have it both ways. In the end of many of these stories, the character gives up his original goal and gets something even better in return.  

     The third kind of conflict -- comic conflict between characters -- is one of the easiest to create. Find two characters who just don't fit together and force them to live with each other. In the movies, these stories are called "buddy pictures." Classic buddy pictures include The Odd Couple, 48 Hours and Midnight Run. These all have two main characters, but this kind of comic conflict can also work with three or more. When the conflict puts the protagonist in a group of other characters that have something in common that the protagonist doesn't share, you have a "fish out of water" story, like Sister Act or Some Like it Hot.  

    Of course, conflict alone doesn't make a story funny. For that to happen, the conflict has to fit the basic rules of humor: it has to surprise the audience, and it cannot be viewed as too painful or too offensive by that audience. One way to do this is to create comic distance between the reader and the character. If the reader identifies with the character too much, the reader will feel the character's pain, but distance will leave some room for laughter. Another way to keep things funny is to have the character see the humor or irony in his situation, as painful as that situation may be. The best comedies distance the audience at times and then bring us right into the character's shoes: they make us laugh and cry at once.

     So how do you create a humorous story using the wiggly mirror of odd couples? Simple. Start with a main character who has something interesting about him or her. Now hold the mirror up to that character. Ask yourself, who or what would make a surprising and challenging odd couple with him or her? Who or what would bring conflict into your story -- the kind of conflict that will make your reader not want to put the book down until that conflict is resolved? Remember, the conflict is best determined by who your character is. The conflict will contradict something he believe, wants or is. 

For example:



A mother who doesn't understand her daughter... ...finds herself stuck in her daughter's body. 
An absolute slob... ...has to share his apartment with a neurotic neat freak.
A fairy tale princess... ...would rather befriend dragons than wait to be rescued by a charming prince.
A cat... ...becomes the object of a skunk's affections.
A man who thinks he can fly... ...encounters reality.
A realist... ...wakes up in an absurd fantasy world.
A woman who wants to love her sister... ...also wants to kill her sister.

     Once you've found your conflict, your job as a writer is to heighten that conflict -- to make things more and more challenging for your main character -- until he or she finally manages to overcome it.

     Now you may be wondering, does the character have to overcome the conflict? Does there have to be a happy ending? The answer is that the two are not the same. The character does have to overcome the original conflict, because that's the way the story ends. If the conflict isn't resolved by the last page, then the writer has cheated the reader out of the one thing the reader has been waiting to find out -- the solution to the character's original conflict. In modern comedies, however, a new conflict can ironically replace the original one. For example, in Green Card, the original conflict is that the two characters don't want to be married, but they are. This conflict is resolved by the end of the story. In the end, however, the two characters want to be married, and they can't be. The first conflict is replaced by its ironic opposite, and the result is both funny and bittersweet.